So, let’s see: we’ve just totally gotten into the swing of summer, the average daytime temperature is in the mid-nineties—it must be time for school to start, right? No, wait—that was two weeks ago. School seems to be starting earlier and earlier every year, and I’m going to pull out an old school (see what I did there) rant and proclaim that starting school in mid-July is insane.
The first day of school is supposed to be THE FIRST DAY AFTER LABOR DAY. OK, I know that wonderful tradition has been yesterday’s news for quite some time now, and I realize this latest adjustment was made to accommodate the some school districts’ newly minted flex calendar format, but still.
Anyway, whether some of us like it or not, school IS back in session, so I thought it would be a good time to reflect upon some of the best/favorite teachers I had throughout my educational process in the Pascagoula School System. I’ve decided to begin with a commentary about an instructor who was probably the most exceptional classroom educator I ever had, then give bullet point comments about several others, starting that group with grade school and going forward.
Mrs. Miller (Seventh Grade, Pascagoula Junior High School, General Science)
We called her “Miller the Killer,” as her reputation for being tough preceded her and she lived up to it from day one. She was right out of central casting for a “hard teacher”: older (hell, she was probably just 55 or 60), grey hair piled high on her head, wire-rimmed glasses, black high-buttoned shoes, and a stern look on her face.
The first day in her room, Mrs. Miller established that hers was not going to be the typical class style. First, she wanted to know who all had a dictionary with them. According to her, all seventh graders needed a dictionary with them at all times to help improve their vocabulary. Going forward, you had to bring the book with you to every class, and get this—when she called the roll, you had to answer by saying “dictionary”; if you didn’t have yours, you were counted as absent.
Then, she announced that we wouldn’t be using a textbook. “I don’t want you to be restricted by just one book,” she said. “Each six weeks (the breakdown back then), we shall approach a different subject about science and learn all we can about it.”
Boy, did we. I can’t remember them all, but at the beginning of every six weeks, she would lay out some fascinating subject matter, and we’d dive in. One section was about Sir Edmund Hillary and his quest to climb Mount Everest. Another time, we learned how to classify animals (phylum, order, genus, species, and all that). We followed that up with the same for plants.
Along the way, we learned all sorts of things about botany and zoology. To this day, I can tell you that plant leaves have three basic types of veining: pinnate, palmate, and parallel.
Ah, then there was an in-depth study of Lepidoptera, the order for butterflies and moths. We had to buy or make nets, catch a few samples, then mount them for study. Monarchs, sulphurs, viceroys, swallowtails, ios—I still try to identify them in the backyard.
Check this out. Mrs. Miller’s desk had one of those glass covers, and under the glass she had a huge collection of pressed plant and insect samples. The mid-semester final exam went like this: you would walk up to her desk, she would point out a sample or two, and you would tell her all you knew about that form of life. Genius.
As the year wore on, most of us started to realize that Miller the Killer was actually quite brilliant with her approach. She was hard but fair, tough but understanding, and by golly, she taught you things that you would remember the rest of your life, and did so in a unique, forward-thinking fashion. We all have thoughts about things we’d like to go back and do, and one of mine would be to have the chance to tell Mrs. Miller what an amazing teacher she was.
Ms. Cox (Third Grade, Beach Elementary) and Mrs. Mitchell (Fourth Grade, Beach Elementary)
I had these two polar opposites back-to-back at Beach. Zoe Belle Cox (what a name) was about five foot-nothing, took us on frequent field trips to the beach a block away, taught us our “times tables,” and said things like “put an egg in your shoe and beat it.” Mrs. Mitchell was tall and stately, had a calm and guiding manner, and put us in a competition to see how many books we could read in a year.
Mrs. Robertson/Page (Seventh Grade, PJHS, English)
She was right out of college, and smart as a whip. Introduced us to great writers like Dickens and Twain, and helped spark an interest in me for writing and performing.
Ms. Perkins (Seventh Grade, PJHS, Math)
Also just out of college, and an absolute knockout. Every boy in that school was in love with Ms. Perkins. Also, she was a good sports fan, and let us listen to the World Series in class on our transistor radios.
Mr. Lippian (Eighth Grade, PJHS, American History)
Mr. Lippian was a short, grey-haired crew-cut bundle of energy. He was a second generation American who was one of the most patriotic people I have ever met. He often used this line with us: “You must use your time, talents, energy, and skills to make this an even better country.” Pretty dang profound. Mr. Lippian later was elected to and served in the Mississippi State Legislature—very appropriate.
Mrs. Mitchell (12th Grade, Pascagoula High School, Algebra II)
This Mrs. Mitchell was amazingly versatile, as she taught several different courses in both math and science. Tell you how good she was: I never particularly liked math, and had really struggled with Algebra I. Under Mrs. M, I made all A’s in Algebra II.
Señora Farnsworth (11th and 12th Grades, PHS, Spanish I and II)
La Señora was brutally tough. She had come from a private school in New Orleans and expected nothing but the best from us. It worked—when Larry Smith and I took freshman Spanish together at Ole Miss, the professor told us we had an extremely strong background. Still don’t like it that Señora made me be Ricardito instead of Ricardo in class, though.
Mr. Moote (12th Grade, PHS, Journalism)
Mr. Moote was, uh, eccentric. He was about 5’6″, wore lime green and purple shirts with weird ties, and spoke in a series of platitudes and quirky pronouncements. He knew his stuff, though, and certainly helped me proceed in life toward both career and personal interests. Plus, after I had an article published in a magazine in the middle of the year, he said I didn’t have to take any more tests from then on out and gave me blanket A’s.
Mrs. Dorsey (12th Grade, PHS, English)
Mrs. Dorsey was a classic Southern lady (she pronounced her name “Daw-uh-see”) who was a wonderful Senior English instructor. She taught us so masterfully about the written and spoken word.
Mr. Carter (12th Grade, PHS, Government)
Mr. Carter was just one of those cut-above kind of teachers. He had this vast amount of knowledge about many different subjects, and a terrific ability to transfer that to his students. At our last Class of ’66 reunion, Mr. Carter was the top vote getter for the survey question, “who was your favorite teacher?”
So, there’s a sampling of my favorite/best teachers from my school days in Pascagoula. I could go on, but Mrs. Dorsey and Ms. Robertson would chastise me for being too verbose. I didn’t realize it until I put this together, but four of my standouts came from my senior year at PHS—how fortunate that was.
Maybe in the future, I’ll do a column about my favorite/best college professors. For now, I wanted to go back and recall those special mentors I had in my earlier formative years. I encourage you to do the same in your minds. After all, these hard-working women and men in the teaching profession gave us all so much , helping to set us out on our pathways to life.