Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, aka when I was a child, we received a postcard in the mail over summer vacation with the name of our teacher for the upcoming year. That was kind of cool because A) it was exciting for a kid to get actual, real mail, and B) it was like getting a surprise package – Congrats, kid! Here’s your teacher!
The summer before 5th grade ruined all that for me. It’s because that postcard indicated I’d be in Mrs. McKinney’s room. Noooo! Every kid in my school avoided this teacher at all costs, and we all prayed we’d never be assigned to her room. It was apparent to us, even at our young age, that she just flat didn’t like kids. And she was going to be my teacher. I lost it, y’all. I mean, I totally melted down. Tantrums, fits, crying jags, you name it. I threatened to run away and live with a family in another school district. I ripped the postcard to shreds as if that would change the outcome. I prayed to God to give me polio or some other disease that would keep me out of school. Anything but having Mrs. McKinney for my teacher. None of it worked, of course, and I was in her room in 5th grade. Granted, it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought, but it wasn’t great, either.
The joy of escaping that school year alive and with my mind still intact was marred by the thought of receiving that next postcard in the mail. It was even worse because all of us going into the 6th grade would leave our elementary schools behind and go to one school for the first time, Green Street 6th Grade School in Tupelo, Mississippi. Not only would I be thrust into classrooms full of kids I didn’t know, I had no idea what any of the teachers would be like.
Finally the postcard arrived, and informed me I’d be a student of Mrs. Patterson for the 6th grade year. I didn’t know whether to be scared or relieved. A phone call from my friend Debbie changed all that. I was to be scared. Terrified. Petrified. See, Debbie had older brothers and sisters, so she knew all about the teachers at other schools and in higher grades.
“You do know who Mrs. Patterson is, don’t you?” she asked.
“She got married at the end of last year, but she’s the infamous (and yes, Debbie used the word ‘infamous’) Miss Gregory.” Debbie’s voice couldn’t have been any more dire if she’d said She’s Joseph Stalin in drag. “I can’t believe we both got her for next year. She’s crazy, and not the fun kind of crazy. The woman is woo-woo nutso!”
So it was with dread that I crept into the classroom on the first day of school. There stood Mrs. Patterson, a tall, thin, woman with flaming red hair, stylish clothes, shiny high heels and bright red lipstick. It didn’t take long that first day to realize that she was, while not crazy like Debbie said, a little “different.” She began class by telling us she had an imaginary rabbit named Bunny Foo-Foo, and told us about the conversation she and this rabbit had that morning before school. Her voice got all high and wavery when she “spoke” for the rabbit, and by the end of this story all of the students were giving each other the side eye and judging the distance to the door in case we had to make a break for it.
But even though Bunny Foo-Foo stories (complete with fake Bunny Foo-Foo voice) continued to make daily appearances in Mrs. Patterson’s room, so did the study of English grammar. I can’t tell you anything about the teachers I had for math, science or social studies that year, or much about the subjects (except that we did a mock trial of Patricia Hearst in one of them while the actual trial was taking place in California, and that was fun!), but I remember almost everything about what Mrs. Patterson taught.
She was passionate about the English language, and was determined that we would not only use it but use it correctly. The sheer number of handouts she gave filled four large three-ring notebooks, and we were to keep and refer to every one of them during the school year. I learned more about English and writing and reading during that year than I did in elementary school, junior high, high school and college combined. Mrs. Patterson might have had a unique way of teaching, but she taught in such a way that we knew and remembered what she said, even if we didn’t want to. She blended other things, too, such as fine art, music, and ancient architecture into her English classes. It was the most interesting class I ever took.
As a result of having her for my 6th grade English and homeroom teacher, I sailed through every other language arts class I ever took. The knowledge I gleaned that year gave me not only an appreciation for, but a love of words that exists to this day. Because of Mrs. Patterson I wasn’t afraid to pick up books well above my grade level, and because of what I learned in her class I was able to figure out the meanings of words in those books I didn’t understand. It if hadn’t been for Mrs. Patterson (and Bunny Foo-Foo!) I probably would never have even considered trying to a write a book, much less have done it.
She changed my life.
When I began writing this post I went to Google to see if I could find out more about this amazing teacher, and that’s when I learned she passed away in 2006. In the newspaper story about her death, former students described her as elegant, articulate, direct, outspoken and determined. “She shared personal stories, and talked about what had brought her joy, pain, even embarrassment,” one student recalled. “She had a marvelous gift for bringing in a full range of information.”
She may be gone now, but she left behind a legacy, and that legacy is former pupils who have a greater appreciation for the beauty of words and of knowledge and learning. I can’t think of a better tribute for a teacher.
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