I received a surprising yet troubling message Monday night that Ruby Jean Wiggins, my first grade teacher passed away. Deaths always take me to my own mother’s demise and the rush of emotions I still remember vividly. This event simply signified another torn page, dog-eared in my book of childhood memories.
I remember her as Ruby Jean Mitchell. Somehow more than my other teachers at Riverview Elementary School, she had an impact on my life that still affects me today. Thursday, I raced home from work early to attend the 2:00 funeral, and along the way, my heart sank. My mind raced with thoughts and emotions about what she’d meant to all of us.
I wondered if she knew how much all of her students learned from her that spanned far beyond the textbook and abacus. She taught us about positivity, personality, and perseverance. The service was held at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, totally devoid of wailing solos and humming organs. Just words about her devotion to Jehovah God.
At the end of the ceremony, I got in line and made my way around the front row to extend my condolences to the family. Her son, his wife and their young-adult son were visibly weary, but seemed to be in a good place – one of acceptance. They knew that Mrs. Mitchell lived her life like a rock star!
The last person on the row, her sister stopped me just before I tried to ease on by her. Barely knowing each other, she asked,
“Now who are you?”
“I’m one of her former students, Joan Sharpe McCullough.”
Her eyes widened, then softened as she said,
I thought maybe Mrs. Mitchell had said something about me or something.
“She really loved all of her students,” she sighed.
I smiled and countered, “And we all loved her.”
In 1981, school and home were two very different environments for me. I loved being at school and especially in Mrs. Mitchell’s class. Home, on the other hand came with stress, with a side of sore hind parts.
I remember excelling in Social Studies and Language Arts. Conversely, I also remember going to a pull-out classroom for Mathematics. Mrs. Mitchell is probably responsible for having me assessed and identified as gifted and talented in the former subjects, and learning disabled in the latter. Still, she never made me feel any less than excellent in class. She was awesome in every way, and we all genuinely loved her effervescent aura.
I remember the very afternoon Mom was driving my grandmother and I across town to Ms. Matilda Majette’s (affectionately known as Grandma Tilly) house on East High Street. Just meters short of the black end of the street, we noticed Mrs. Mitchell walking from the corner store back to her home. I perked up and shouted the only way a six year-old can,
“Miss Mitchell! Miss Mitchell! Ma! There’s Miss Mitchell!”
She approached the car with a smile that shined brighter than the sun.
“Hey baby,” she called to me through the driver’s side window.
Of course, I had no concept of Miss versus Mrs. What I did know, is that I thought she hung the moon and I reeled with excitement as Mom pulled the car over. I thought for sure she did it solely so that I could talk with my teacher. Instead, the two of them held an extensive conversation about somebody they both knew and various other topics.
I thought, What? Mom knows Mrs. Mitchell?
I was growing impatient, yet soaking in every bit of their banter. Finally, Mom asked the million dollar question, and it was my turn to take in some of Mrs. Mitchell’s abundant energy.
“So how’s my baby doing in school?” Mom nodded her head toward my position in the passenger side backseat.
I sat up, smiled and took a deep breath as I eagerly waited for her to tell Mom and Ma-ma how well I was doing. The car was quiet and we were all ready to catch hold and hang onto her every word.
She replied, leering alternately at both of my caregivers, without taking a breath,
“Just as busy as she can be! Won’t stay in her seat, every time I look up she’s at my desk, talks a mile a minute, asks a hundred questions after I already answered the first one, playing wild on the playground…”
I let out some high-pitched noise that was barely audible in disbelief. I tried to breathe but the shock of her words had closed my trachea almost to the point of asphyxiation. Never expecting her to say that, I was totally broadsided and felt a sense of betrayal. After all, she hadn’t indicated to me that I was all those things in class. Then again, maybe I was too busy to notice.
Mom and Ma-ma both turned and looked at me with glares that said in unison, I’m gonna tear your behind to pieces!
“Uh huh, I said I was going to tell you when I saw you,” Ruby Jean continued.
I could imagine my grandmother slowly transforming into the incredible hulk, only she didn’t turn green. Red would be a better description. I’m certain she felt completely justified in the way she disciplined me herself, after hearing the bad report.
I wanted to dissolve and seep down into the seat cushion, never to return.
What Mom said next, essentially gave Mrs. Mitchell the keys to the city.
“Well I’m going to take care of it, and if she gives you another problem, you whip her! You hear?”
I mean, I thought I was getting whipped enough for the entire first grade already! Mrs. Mitchell gladly accepted my mother’s invitation to paddle me, and began to back away from the car.
“I sure will honey! Yes indeedy! Y’all take care now,” she said in her southern belle dialect as she strutted across the street.
Ma-ma immediately turned around and almost hurt herself trying to beat me from the front seat, and she didn’t stop from the time we crossed over Highway 11 until we got to Grandma Tilly’s house.
Looking back, the kind of discipline that Mrs. Mitchell would go on to give me in school was all love. Although she totally sold me out that day in town, she cared for me in class from then through the end of the school year. I don’t recall any excessive paddling either.
During our end-of-year party, she saved the day in epic fashion! Apparently, whatever I ate didn’t agree with my tummy. Before I could alert Mrs. Mitchell that I was feeling sick, I stood up, turned around, threw up in the seat of my wooden chair. Expecting swift punishment, I tapped her on her back and pointed to the chair and braced myself. She turned around, saw the slimy mess and looked as if she felt sorry for me. She remained calm and motioned for the aide, Mrs. Straddley to get something to clean up the vomit.
I guess there was so much going on, it took the aide too long to come clean the seat. Soon, I got tired of standing and I lost focus. Totally zoned out and probably dehydrated, I plopped right back down in my chair-the same one I’d just thrown up in. Realizing immediately what I had done, I jumped up and tried to look behind myself.
Great. My navy blue, polyester pants now reeked of the worst smelling regurgitation I’ve experienced to date. I tapped her once more expecting to really get it this time. Mrs. Mitchell did a double take and looked at me with a face that said Oh Lord Child! This time, the class let out a collective, “Ewwwwww!” Mom wasn’t home so I had to stay there, in those nasty pants for the rest of the day.
As if things hadn’t been horrible enough, when it was time to pack up to go home, I noticed that someone had stolen my chewing gum. I reported it to Mrs. Mitchell and she went into vigilante mode.
“Children, we will not go to the buses until Joan gets her gum back,” she warned.I was an only child, so I didn’t share, and I certainly didn’t play someone stealing from me. Mrs. Mitchell poured out the contents of the children’s book bags to my immediate left and right, respectively. To the class’ surprise, the quietest little girl in the school had stolen my gum and packed it all the way down in the bottom of her book bag. Consequently, we all gasped and clutched our little chests! My takeaway? You have to watch the quiet ones!
In the end, although I had been mischievous and made a mess of myself that day, Mrs. Mitchell cared for me when I was sick and she defended me when I was wronged. That was thirty-eight years ago, yet it’s one of the fondest memories I have from Riverview Elementary School.
Mrs. Mitchell may have been married and well off, but she didn’t judge me because I was from the west end of town, living in a single income home, nor because my clothes weren’t the latest and greatest. She made me feel that regardless of the things I didn’t have, I did have a good brain, and I could learn.
Do we make children feel that they can learn today, in spite of their shortcomings? Further, do we nurture them when they don’t know what nurturing feels like? Ruby Jean did. Rest in peace, Mrs. Mitchell.
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