Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thank a Teacher

My father, Albert Lawrence Pyles (Sonny Boy to those who knew him as a boy – the only ones he would forgive for using the nickname he didn’t much care for as an adult) grew up in Depression and post-Depression rural West Virginia, the oldest of four – bright, on a farm, and dirt poor.

College was not an option in the economic realities of my Dad.  Yet it happened.

Education as a possibility was born in a public education that began with a boy whose father had to get credit to buy him the required shoes to attend school.  That journey was a painful and formative memory for my Dad, as store after store denied the needed buying power against the promise to pay.

At home my Dad read the Bible and the dictionary (the only books in his house) through and through who knows how many times.

Teachers taught him to read.

And teachers in the one-room school house he walked to in the winter coat a neighbor had given him and the teachers in the larger school he moved up to saw something in that bright little mind that they fed and encouraged and made possible for the dream of college to be a reality.

He had the mind and the desire, but those teachers were the ones who shaped that young man into dreaming what his people never could never have dreamed into reality for him.

Teachers got him to apply and paid for the process out of their own pockets.  They helped him do it.  They taught him what he would need to know to succeed in a life of learning.  They thought his poverty did not disqualify him from dreaming big.

So as I sit in my comfortable living room this morning with a Bachelors of Arts, a Doctor of Jurisprudence and a Master of Divinity under my proverbial belt, I know that, but for those women who dedicated themselves to teaching the country children that included my Dad, that thanks is a debt owed; and I am moved to offer them thanks for their service, and thanks to a country that believed (at least then) in public education, for without it, without them, where would I be?

Without teachers that cared for a tiny boy walking his way to what they had to offer . . . without teachers who shared what they knew with a hungry mind . . . without teachers that did not presume his economic poverty did not equate to poverty of mind or spirit . . . without teachers that dared to believe he could go out into the world . . . without them, I would not be here in a very literal sense, for it was in college that my parents met.

So yeah, I don’t just thank teachers.  I adore them.

In my own journey, I remember and thank Miss Taylor in 2nd grade, for taking the mid-year new kid as she was, guiding her in new ways with kindness and patience . . . for Miss Daughterty in 5th grade, the first woman of color I knew well, who managed a class of 50 with humor and skill and the patience of a saint (especially when it came to me) . . . for Mrs. Palmer in 6th grade, who forgave me . . . for Mrs. Davidson in junior high who showed me the world . . . for Mr. Hawkins in high school, who helped me find my voice . . . for Professor Weber, who showed me that learning could be fun . . . for Professor Cleckley in law school, who taught me the importance of genuine justice and to always fight for the people in desperate need of it . . . for Professors Rorem and McKee, who opened the doors of faith and understanding in the present through the lens of the past . . . and for friend and Professor Stu Hammel, who taught me to think and showed me the world and believed that two West Virginia girls could hold their own with the best of the country and in his believing, made it so.


  1. Dear Ms. Beth...this one I will share with my daughter Jaimie, a first year teacher who is struggling to do her best. She needs to be reminded that someone is watching, her students. Thank you for reminding me of all the teachers who helped me to dream and who gave me the tools to do it with.