Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Remembering My Mother as a Teacher

Mom, 79, in town for our son's
wedding, August 1999
My mother, Prudence Dyer, now 95, had a long teaching career. She began--with my dad's encouragement--back in the mid-1950s in Enid, Oklahoma, where she taught English at Enid's Emerson Junior High School--Enid, which as I've mentioned before, named its two junior highs for Emerson and Longfellow.

Dad and Mom had moved around a bit after World War II, and she'd actually finished her B.A. at Vanderbilt. She'd done her student teaching in Enid, but with three young sons at home (in 1953 we three turned 12, 9, 5) she'd had no immediate plans to teach. But then one day (she told me) there was a knock at the door. It was Enid school superintendent DeWitt Waller (who now has an Enid junior high named for him); he said he'd heard about her student teaching; he said he wanted to hire her.

Mom said she wasn't so sure. But Dad encouraged her. See, he knew about Mom's intelligence, her amazing organizational abilities (with three young sons you'd better have them). And so Mom began teaching during the era of school desegregation (Brown v. Board, 1954) and taught the first African American kids to attend a previously all-white school, Emerson JHS.

Mom would subsequently teach at James A. Garfield HS (Garrettsville, OH--when we moved to Hiram in the summer of 1956) and at Drake University (when she and Dad both took positions there in 1966), where she retired in the early 1980s. While she was teaching at Garfield, she pursued and completed her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, 100 miles away. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, she would leave Garfield, drive to Pitt, take evening classes, drive home, arriving near midnight--then get up and teach the next day. In the summers, she would rent a room in Pittsburgh during the week, come home on the weekends. We tended to eat better on the weekends.

Here are a few things I remember about Mom's teaching--in no particular order ...

  • At Emerson, her students read Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe--her ninth graders. As I posted here last year (I think), I recently read that book for the first time and could not believe it had once been a standard work in the junior hi curriculum. 
  • She also taught her kids sentence-diagramming, and I remember one day watching her working at home on a project she was planning for her class--diagramming "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." She was having the best time ...
  • Mom routinely corrected my usage and grammar. (Which I abhorred!) But the result? I never really had to study for such tests in school. I would just try to remember what Mom had said. Later, though, a teacher myself, I had to learn the reasons for what I was (usually) saying "correctly." 
  • Enid could be brutally hot in the fall and spring, and no schools had air-conditioning. I think of her in 100-degree heat, a classroom full of prairie kids diagramming sentences, debating the values of Ivanhoe ... hard to imagine. I remember her coming home, exhausted, but still ready to deal with her three demons--uh, sons.
  • At Garfield, she supervised student publications and honor societies at the high school, taught a full load, helped redesign the entire curriculum. During those years I was a junior high and high school student myself, and I was not--to my enduring shame--the most understanding of sons. (Translation: I was a jerk.) I remember her grading papers in good weather out on the big veranda we had on our old Hiram house--sitting on a porch-furniture chaise longue; I remember her meticulous printing (she did not write cursive) in the margins of the books she taught (I have some of them); I remember how students in various groups would come to the house to meet with her; I remember seeing how profoundly they respected her; I remember--adolescent jerk that I was--wondering Why?!?!
  • By the time little brother, Davi, reached high school age, Hiram High School was no more--consolidation with nearby Crestwood Schools in Mantua. But Mom took Davi with her to G'ville every day, where he would eventually become the valedictorian and head off to Harvard for his undergrad (and, later, graduate) studies.
  • Mom had a very quiet voice. When she was really serious, her voice grew softer, not louder. (Barely audible = Very dangerous) Some kids I knew at Garfield told me she was the same in class--when things got rowdy, her voice grew softer, and the room came to attention.
  • At Drake University, Mom really came into her own--became a revered member of the Department of Education, an advisor to doctoral students. She published a number of articles, a book (with Prof. John Shaw at Hiram) on the teaching of poetry--Working with Poetry, 1968; Amazon lists it only as Shaw's book--grrr; she was a regular "presenter" at various education workshops and conferences. (Link to Mom's book on Amazon.)
  • Early in my own teaching career (which commenced in 1966) I once visited one of Mom's classes at Drake to talk about classroom discipline (hah!); she did not tell them who I was, just that I was a young teacher. But I recall that her students figured it out almost immediately--people always said I looked like my mom--not something a boy really wants to hear, you know?
  • Mom was an early and vigorous user of a personal computer. She had an early Apple II that interfaced with her IBM Selectric. She used computers well into her 80s, then, in her 90s, her fingers would no longer cooperate; her memory faded, and she couldn't remember how to boot it up--how to shut it down. Her last laptop, unused in years, still sits on her dining room table.

Nowadays, Mom's life is considerably circumscribed. She lives in a stages-of-care facility in Lenox, Mass. Assisted living. She needs help to do pretty much everything--except correct my usage, which she occasionally still does. And I smile, am grateful. (See how mature I've become!)

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