Most people have a reminiscent teacher story. I cannot wait to share mine.
After matriculating through elementary school with Miss Ross who was going to beat the mathematical times tables in my head through my rear end, and Rev. McBeth who was a fierce proponent of disciplinary protocol, I met 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 not our future classmates at 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. Now, it was them, instead of us, getting up at 5:00 a.m. in the morning to drive by several schools to get to theirs.
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. Meeting Miss Patterson, a petite, personable, and smart teacher who taught me science was a unique experience. She had 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 closet full of purses, shoes, and clothes. I had never seen that much merchandise in one 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 college. You must study hard and continue to make good grades.” That one sentence changed my life. The straw that broke the camel’s back was that she had a modern upright piano in her living room. That was an instrument that was not 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 head! Since I loved clothes and accessories, I wanted what she had for me. It became a motivator.
I also remembered her talking about her future plans. Should she marry the doctor or the lawyer? Wow! Amazing choices, I’ll say for any woman, let alone a Black woman. How could you not admire her? After graduating from college, I went to see 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. By now, she had a fabulous baby grand piano. 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.” “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.”
A thought recently hit me as I traveled to Baltimore (and saw the Mitchellville exit sign) this past August 2013. I realized that it’s not too late. Maybe, I might still make it to Hollywood as a screenwriter if my book becomes a movie. Or maybe, and highly likely, my presence may emanate through my daughter who has already made numerous appearances on national television. Still, it’s in the genes, the bloodline! We will see what the future holds.
Miss Patterson, you planted seeds of knowledge, hope, motivation, and inspiration in me. I thank you because you truly changed my life. I will always remember what you taught me!
This article is dedicated to 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.