by Barbara Joy Cooley

Vera Carter Cooley (1909-1968), teacher of math and English in Gaffney, South Carolina.

I was a very shy little girl. I was so shy I shuffled my feet when I entered a room full of people. I lacked self-confidence. Because I was a year younger than many of my classmates (due to my passing an early entry kindergarten test), I thought I was inferior. The teachers that I had for kindergarten through third grade did little to help me come out of my shell.

Then came the reading test and Mrs. Hardesty. I took the reading test, convinced that I would be placed in the remedial group. Instead, I was placed in the small group of kids who read exceptionally well. I was incredulous, but then I had to admit, I loved to read books – real books, the kind that adults read. And then there was fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Hardesty.

She was a lovely, energetic, and whip-smart lady who loved to teach kids. She brought out the best in each and every one of us. My self-confidence grew enormously. I felt happy about my possibilities. Before Mrs. Hardesty, I dreaded school. During and after Mrs. Hardesty, I liked school, and I loved learning.

Before Mrs. Hardesty, my experience was that teachers didn’t really like their students. They just yelled at them and tried to maintain a strict orderliness in the classroom. Mrs. Hardesty, on the other hand, seemed to love us. She even invited us to her apartment for a party at the end of the school year. Imagine that – a teacher who wanted her students to be in her home for a joyful occasion!

After Mrs. Hardesty, I was lucky to have a series of other excellent teachers. Mr. Tarvin had us researching and writing term papers in sixth grade! That was exciting. We all felt so accomplished and mature. In middle school, Mr. Hern taught me to love math, and a social studies teacher had us create and present little speeches about why we supported the presidential candidate of our choice. (I was one of the few who supported Hubert Humphrey instead of Richard Nixon.)

In high school there were talented and caring teachers of English, math, history, social studies and science (except for the chemistry teacher who was exceptionally dull). Jay Hanson, a teacher of civics/government, was a dramatically and energetically committed performer who commanded our complete attention – he made us laugh as we learned.

The good teachers gave me much more than they know. They were so gifted that I’m certain they could have made more money in some other career. But they were there, in the classroom, because they cared about teaching us.

As I went through undergraduate school at a Big Ten university, I found myself headed for a career that would probably lead to teaching. But I don’t have that gift that so many teachers have. I changed my major to direct myself to a career that did not involve teaching; I became a science writer at a large research institute.

Other people in my life do have that gift that good teachers have. My husband Tom, for example, was the kind of professor who, unlike many of his colleagues, liked teaching undergraduates more than graduate students because he “liked to see the lightbulb go on”; he liked to see that moment when an idea illuminated a student’s mind. He continues his teaching now in the form of textbooks. I marvel at the study questions that he writes.

His mother was a teacher, too. She taught math and English in Gaffney, South Carolina. I never met her because she died when she was only 59, but I met a number of her former students when Tom and I went to his hometown for high school reunions. Over and over, I heard these folks tell me how she changed their lives for the better.

I am proud of my nephew who is a high school science teacher in Wisconsin; I wish my high school chemistry teacher could have been more like him. My nephew has that teaching gift.

I worry about all the talented and dedicated teachers who are facing the return to the classroom in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Their lives are precious to so many. We must do all that we can to protect them.

Comments (4)

  1. As a former teacher, your teachers treasure the fact that you remember them so fondly and the positive impact they had on your life. As such, students are the treasures in a teacher’s life. Pray for their safety always, this year especially. Respect for all teachers.

  2. Such a wonderful story. Thank you for writing it. I suspect many of us had wonderful teachers we never appreciated. It is easier to remember the ones who were not so good. It took me until junior year in high school to realize they were real people! I fell asleep in English class and the teacher told me to stay after class. She asked why I fell asleep – told her it was because I didn’t feel so good and because I was sitting next to the window and the sun was beating down on me. She simply said the next time I feel like that to let her know and she will put me in a seat where the sun is not beating in. Here thought I was going to catch hell and instead she sympathized with me and gave me a way to handle it next time.

  3. Ellen Svenson, St. Louis and Sanibel

    Barbaran Joy Cooley really spoke to me. As a person who loved school and am a retired high school teacher, your words mean a great deal to me. I too give thanks and hope for the best as my oldest grandchild leaves for his freshman year in college and my other two return to their high school at the end of the month. Give parents patience as they help their children with virtual learning and keep everyone safe as they return to the physical classrooms.

  4. I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing during this Covid isolation about the wonderful teachers who have been so meaningful in my life. I too was a shy child who felt invisible in the world, but these caring, sensitive people Saw me. How I wish I had thanked them, although I’m 77 now and they are gone. Please thank a teacher when you can.

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