THE TEACHER WHO CHANGED MY LIFE
Most people have a reminiscent teacher story; a story that impacted them; a story that left a memorable imprint!
Here's mine. After matriculating through Moore’s Elementary school with Miss Ross who was going to beat the mathematical times tables in my head through my rear end if I didn’t learn them to Principal Rev. McBeth who was a fierce proponent of disciplinary compliance (this was during the time when kids could be paddled for misbehaving), I met this newly graduated teacher, Miss Toni Jean Patterson in the 7th grade.
The year was 1966.
The state of Mississippi finally enforced integration. Much to our chagrin and to our parents’ expectancy, the White kids were suddenly not going to be our future classmates at our hometown Glen Allan High School. In fact, they abandoned the school in its entirety. Black and White children in the same classroom in Mississippi were a taboo at least that was the opinion of the White populous as they vacated integration to maintain segregation. They even established their own private school.
For many of them, it was an inconceivable notion that would never give birth to reality for their White children to be in the same classroom with Black children!
“How unspeakable; the nerve of them Black folks,” undoubtedly was their thought!
Needless to say, the Whites‘ thought processes regarding this mixing of the races merely validated their acquiescence as being a reflection and expression of the existent discriminatory and racist times.
Continuing the saga, off to their new segregated White only school, they went!
Now, it was them, instead of us, getting up at 5:00 a.m. in the morning to go to school. Now it was them and not us who were being bused.
So what would happen to us - the Black Kids?
Would we be left out in the cold?
Our parents and local civil rights activists rallied around us and protested!
Equal Rights were definitely the law of the land!
The state of Mississippi owed us the same educational benefits as the White kids.
Our parents were not settling for anything less!
Dreams do come true!
Alongside some veteran educators, waiting on the horizon was a group of young Black college graduates zealously eager to put their teaching certificates to work at Glen Allan High School. As a results, we Inherited some great teachers who were determined to make us the best that we could be!
One of those teachers was a lady by the name of Miss Toni Jean Patterson. Meeting Miss Patterson, a petite, personable, and smart teacher who taught me science was a unique experience. She performed double duty as she provided us with extracurricular instruction when she formed a choir.
Being an honor student, I soon became her “pet.” What a glorious position to have as I could get away with my characteristic excessive talking without being punished.
On one occasion, Miss Patterson had to make a trip to her home in neighboring Greenville, and she took me with her. I was astonished at what I saw! She had a huge closet full of purses, shoes, and clothes. They were everywhere! I had never seen that much merchandise in one singular place other than in a department store. I was speechless and amazed! Realizing that an impression had been made, Miss Patterson said, “Vernadeane, you can have all of this stuff if you finish school and go to college. You must study hard and continue to make good grades. And please don't have any babies!”
That discussion and incident changed my life. The straw that broke the camel’s back was that she had a modern upright piano in her living room. To my eyes, that was a vision of privilege. That was an instrument that was rarely seen in Black folks’ shot gun houses in the impoverished Mississippi delta. Her house and possessions formed a pictorial snapshot that became a lasting memory permanently sketched in my mind! Before you jump to conclusions, I know that you may say that it’s a materialistic thought, but I was impressionable as most teenage girls! Since I loved clothes and accessories, I wanted what she had. I can’t lie! It became a motivator.
I also remembered her talking about her future plans. Should she marry a doctor or a lawyer? Wow! Amazing choices, I’ll say for any woman, let alone a Black woman! How could you not admire her?
Of course, I followed her advice!
After graduating from college, I went to see her. My sister Jean who was living in Washington, D.C. at the time had previously connected with her.
By this time, she was a principal living in Mitchellville, Maryland with her lawyer hubby and son. Some things hadn’t changed over the years. She now had a fabulous baby grand piano in her home. Her closet was still full of clothes, purses, and shoes….tons of them.
As if it was yesterday, I can hear her saying, “Vernadeane, you look like I thought you would look; you talk like I thought you would talk. I am so proud of you.”
“Thank you Miss Patterson,” who was now Mrs. Menchan. Continuing, she said, “I just have one additional thing to say, I thought that you would go to Hollywood, since you were so theatrical.” Laughing, I said, “Not yet, but maybe I will make it there one day.”
A thought just hit me as I recently traveled to Baltimore (and saw the Mitchellville exit sign). I realized that it’s not too late! Maybe, I might still make it to Hollywood one day! ”Ain’t nothing wrong with dreaming!”
Anyway as I reminisce, I give credit to her (Toni Jean), my favorite teacher, as she planted seeds of knowledge, hope, motivation, and inspiration in me. After all these years, I remain grateful because she saw something in me that I was too young to see in myself. She planted a seed that fertilized my destiny. I will always remember her and what she taught me! I admired her so greatly! Truly, she changed my life! I remain grateful for the seeds that she planted in me to become the best that I could be! Thank you ... my African Queen; my teacher ... who changed my life!
This article is dedicated to the memory of the late Mrs.Toni Patterson Menchan, my favorite teacher who taught me lessons in books and life.
Photo Reprint: www.loc.gov; (Johnston) Frances Benjamin Collection; Annie Davis School near Tuskegee, Alabama.