Ronda J. Dalenberg: Sister Teacher

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My sister Ronda during her last summer trip with our extended family
Gulf of Mexico--August 2009

Four years ago my only sister died. She was my age now, 54, and for some reason, that makes this anniversary of her death especially painful for me. Until she had to retire early because of her illnesses, she worked for the federal government, Rural Housing, making low-interest loans so poor people could have a decent place to live. One day when I was visiting Alabama where she lived and worked, she drove me around to show some of the houses she helped build. She stopped in front of one that she was particularly proud of. It was a cute little brick home, but not just a little box like so many government houses I had seen. It had a large arched window in the front, white accents and other interesting features. She told me that the contractors she was working with now had found ways to make the houses unique but still keep the price low. “It doesn’t cost much to make a big difference in people’s lives,” she said.

Ronda loved science when she was in school and thought about being a veterinarian when she first started attending Auburn University, but she ended up getting her degree in Animal and Dairy Sciences. She thought when she was in school that she would end up managing some sort of barn or farm. She loved horses and dogs, especially, but no, she ended up working for the government making loans. When she first started working for the government, her department was called Farmers Home Administration. She needed to know about the economics of farming to assess lands, equipment and livestock when making loans, but things began to change and her main work at the end of her career was making home loans.

Ronda never seriously considered a teaching career. I remember that she tried to do some substituting at one time in her life and had a really bad time one day. She shook her head and said to me, “Why would you ever want to be a teacher?” Then we laughed at all the horrible things those little hellions did to her that day in the way people sometimes do when the bad times are over. I didn’t say anything to her then, but when I think about it now, I realize that my sister was one of the best teachers I ever had.

Ronda was the oldest and we used to tease her about how bossy she was. We compared her to Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip. She reveled in this comparison, holding her hand up to one of my brothers, saying, “I’ll give you five good reasons to quit that.” Then, one by one counting and curling her fingers to create a fist, just like Lucy famously did over and over in the Sunday funnies. She didn’t stop her bossiness when we became adults either. It used to infuriate me that she would dare to have an opinion about education and/or teaching when I was the professional educator, by golly!  How could she tell me anything about education?

Things changed over time, of course. As I matured, enduring many successes and even more failures, I gained some of the humility that most acquire with time. There is one time in particular that Ronda made a comment about my teaching that ultimately changed my attitude about my career, even though at the time the comment stung like one of my Great Aunt Jane’s peach tree switches.

I was visiting my parents’ home where my sister was living. Her husband Donald is a truck driver, so he was gone a lot and her health was getting to the point that she didn’t want to live alone. As I often did, unfortunately, I was regaling the family about all my troublesome students, how they didn’t listen to directions and didn’t seem to care and how some were bilking the tax payers, just going to school to get a government check and on and on, ad nauseum. Ronda listened a long time and when I finally took a breath, she said, “You don’t sound like you like your students very much.”

I don’t remember what I said or did after that but I do remember that at first I was so angry at her. “How dare she?” “Doesn’t she know I was just blowing off steam?” But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my sister was right. It was then I knew I needed to go back to the reason I became a teacher in the first place–to help people be productive and find happiness in a job well-done–to help them lead better lives because of what they learned in my classes. How could I teach them effectively if I didn’t even like them? How could I care?

After that,  I went back to teaching with a renewed sense of my students’ intrinsic worth. I began to look for the things I liked about my students–their humor, their love of life, their eagerness, their youthful spirits, their drive. I even found myself being somewhat amused, or at the least not angered, by their student-like failings–their procrastination and arrogance and rebellion. I know I’m a better teacher now because I decided that liking my students, enjoying them, makes me a better teacher.

I don’t know if Ronda ever knew in this life time what her simple observation did for me, but it is only one example of the way my sister has taught me to be a better teacher–and a better person. I think of her and I miss her all the time, but here on this fourth anniversary, the intense pain of her horrible death has been replaced with the joy of her life and what it meant to me and all those who have been blessed to have known her as wife, daughter, sister, cousin, friend, colleague, mentor and teacher.

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Mama K and Her Kin, Part II

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The 1963 Lanett Championship Football Team

In Part I of “Mama K and Her Kin,” I wrote about my grandmother Katherine Dabbs, who was educated at Jacksonville State Teacher’s College in North Alabama, where she met my grandfather Gordon Dabbs (we called him Daddy D) in a music appreciation class. I also talked about one of her experiences teaching in a one-room school house in North Alabama. But Mama K’s educational adventures didn’t end there.

Mama K married Daddy D, and they settled in the Ridge Grove area of Chambers County, not far from Dudleyville and Budston, you read right, Dudleyville and Budston. in between Camp Hill and Lafayette, Alabama, the county seat of Chambers County. Lafayette hit the big time in 1988 when the feature film Mississippi Burning was filmed there. Some people didn’t like how the town was portrayed in the movie, but it did bring some needed funds to the cash strapped county that has long been one of the poorest in the nation.

It was poor when Mama K and Daddy D settled there and Daddy D was the principal of the Ridge Grove school. My mother was born in the little house that is right down the road from the property that my grandfather bought before he took the job as principal of Lanett High School in Lanett, Alabama. I’m sorry that I never met my grandfather, he died of a heart attack the year I was born, but I feel like I know him from the stories people tell him, especially my mother. She is so proud of her papa!

From her I learned that he was a wonderful teacher and principal. He loved science, taught physics, and liked to build things. Mom says that he built a generator from scratch that the family used when they went camping. When I was little, my siblings and I rode on a little go cart that he built, and all of us rocked in the little rocking chair he made for my sister Ronda, the oldest of his grandchildren. My husband John repaired and painted that rocking chair for our daughter Hannah to use, and it is still sitting down in our garage, ready to be handed down to children who will have wonderful memories of rocking and reading and daydreaming. I’ll be sure to explain how that chair was built with love by their great, great grandfather.

Mama K was devoted to Daddy D and she was the quintessential principal’s wife. When my mother and then my Uncle El, (He was also a teacher–he taught Spanish) was born, Mama K stayed home and took care of them, but when they got older, she went back to teaching and taught Alabama history and conservation. Yes, conservation was an important subject for rural Alabamians in the 50’s, my mother tells me. The soil had been badly depleted during the over-farming of the depression and war years, so the public schools stepped in to teach new and sustainable farming techniques to high school students.

Mama K continued to teach during the late 50’s but in 1959 tragedy struck and Daddy D, who had a history of heart problems, died at his home in Lanett. He was greatly mourned by his family, of course, and the whole community, but especially the educational community, both black and white. Even before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954, my grandfather had begun forming a strong relationship with Mr. Brown, the principal of the nearby black high school, but because of the resistance across the US and especially in the South to integration, there was not an immediate move to desegregate the schools, but my grandfather and Mr. Brown were anticipating the move towards integration. My mother remembers asking her father about desegregation, and he told her there might be “a lot of trouble” but that in the end “It’ll all work out.”

After my grandfather’s death, Mama K continued to teach at Lanett High School and the push to desegregate became stronger. Although my mother isn’t sure of the exact timing, my grandmother played a pivotal part in the successful racial integration of the county’s schools. Sometime between 1959 and 1963, the new administration asked for volunteers among the white teachers to go to the black high school to teach, while teachers from the black high school came to Lanett High. Mama K was the first white teacher to volunteer. She told my mother that as the widow of a beloved educational leader, she should set an example for the rest of the teachers.

Mom doesn’t know too many details about that time, but what we do know is that the Lanett City Schools were integrated successfully and without violence. Mama K didn’t teach much longer, however, because sometime in the early 60’s, I’m not sure of the exact date, my grandmother became seriously ill and was hospitalized, so it seemed to be a good time to retire.

My Great Aunt Jane, also a teacher, came to live with my grandmother following Daddy D’s death. As I said in Part I of this blog post, Aunt Jane taught math, including trigonometry and calculus. She continued to teach for years in nearby Valley, Alabama, and even though I was young, I can remember going on errands with her when she still taught and how students and former students would stop and talk to her, telling her what a good teacher she was. I was so proud to be her grand niece.

When I started teaching, Aunt Jane, who was like another grandmother to me, gave some extra special gifts that I continue to cherish to this day–one is a charm bracelet that she received when she retired that has all sorts of math and science teacher charms, including a math book, a beaker, a slide rule and an abacus. I’m an English teacher but I love it–the other is something that looks like an ordinary pen but extends out to be a pointer. I don’t use it any more but I did when I first taught because it always amazed my students–they were easily entertained back then. When Aunt Jane died, Mama K gave some of her things to the grandchildren and to me she gave a heavy marble pen holder that Aunt Jane got when she retired. I have it on my desk at the college where I teach, and every time I look at it and see her name, Jane Leath, I am reminded of the great teaching legacy I belong to and am so glad I have chosen this profession.

When times get bad and I get discouraged I remember them all–my grandmother and grandfather, mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, all the teachers in my life who have made a difference in this world–for good.

A

Good Beginnings–Mama K and Her Kin, Part I

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View of Mt. Cheaha near my grandmother’s birthplace in northeast Alabama

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, and one of my namesakes (I was named after my two grandmothers) was a teacher. We called her Mama K. She came from the mountains of Alabama, up near Chattanooga, that’s the tail end of the Appalachian range. It’s beautiful up there. If you ever visit, be sure you go to Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama.

My grandmother met my grandfather, also a teacher and a principal, at what was then called Jacksonville State Teachers College. Back then, the late 1920’s, a person could complete a teaching degree in just two years. They met in a music appreciation class. He was funny and boisterous, she was proper and reserved. He had grown up near Budston in Chambers County, Alabama, still one of the poorest counties in the nation, and she had grown up in the mountains, also surrounded by poverty, but their families, mostly farmers, managed to give their children good beginnings–childhoods filled with love, security and faith–teaching them self-sufficiency and discipline, but they wanted more for their kids than the hard scrabble life they had, so they managed to find a way to send them to the teachers college, where they could hopefully rise out of the poverty in which they were born.

All but one of my grandmother’s siblings became educators. Uncle John Taylor was principal of a school in Rome, Georgia for years. I didn’t know him well, but I went to his funeral with my mother, and I’ll never forget how packed that church was, how well-respected and loved Uncle John Taylor was.

My Aunt Jane, the baby of the family, completed all the course work for a doctorate in mathematics but didn’t see the need to write a dissertation as she was happy teaching algebra, calculus and trigonometry to high school students, mainly in Valley, Alabama, in the east central part of the state near the Alabama/Georgia line. My daughter’s middle name is Jane in honor of my great Aunt Jane, who never married and had no children of her own. Her niece, my mother, became a teacher and high school librarian, I, the grand niece, am a teacher too, having taught English composition and literature over 25 years in private at public schools, at the secondary and college level.

Aunt Dixie, the middle daughter,  also obtained a teaching certificate and maybe taught a year or two, but she went to revival services at the little County Line Baptist Church and fell in love with the handsome young preacher who was preaching that day, my Uncle Judson, and married him. His son, also Judson, became a teacher and principal in the Birmingham, Alabama area, now retired as Dr. Judson L. Jones. His daughter Lea is also a teacher and working on her doctorate in education.

Uncle Jim went into the navy and served his country honorably, becoming a farmer near Troy, Alabama, carrying on his parents’ profession, but it’s interesting to note that his daughter and granddaughter became educators, highly respected in their field.

When Mama K graduated from Jacksonville State Teachers College, her first teaching position was in North Alabama in a one-room schoolhouse. I remember going through some of Mama K’s old school books from those days when I was a child. It was one of my favorite past times. I loved old books and still love them to this day, the way they smell and feel and look. In between the pages of one of the old text books was a little pamphlet about Harry the Hookworm, illustrated with funny little cartoon pictures of a hookworm and explaining how to avoid getting the parasites by using a latrine. The latter part of the pamphlet actually had instructions on how to build an outhouse.

I asked Mama K about it, and she told me this story. Once when she was teaching in that little schoolhouse in North Alabama, there was one little boy who was very poor and usually came to school wearing the same clothes, but she didn’t think anything of it because his clothes, despite being worn, always looked clean, but one day every time he came close to her, she noticed a horrible smell, a body odor that got worse in the next few days, especially now that it was getting colder, and she was keeping the windows and doors of the little schoolhouse closed.

Finally the smell got so bad that she simply had to say something, so she kept him after school and asked as gently as she could, “Are you taking a bath from time to time?”

He said, “Yes’m”

“Are you taking off your shirt and your pants and getting into a tub?”

“Yes’m. My mama heats up the water on the stove and I get in.”

“Do you scrub all over?”

“Yes’m”

My grandmother didn’t want to embarrass the boy anymore than she already had, but she wanted to find out what was causing the smell and she had her suspicions, so she said, “Are you taking off all your clothes, including your underwear?”

He looked surprised at the question, and said, “Why, no ma’am. My mama done sewed me into my underwear!”

She chuckled and I laughed, after she explained it to me as I didn’t have much knowledge of long johns, and then she got serious, telling me that when she taught at the little one room schoolhouse, a large portion of her teaching was about how to live a healthy life day to day when you were poor and didn’t have much of anything. She talked about how poor her students were and that many of them didn’t have houses with running water or latrines. They didn’t know many of the basic things, so she taught those along with reading and writing and arithmetic. She felt good about the short time she taught those students because she believed she was helping them have better lives.

My grandmother wasn’t sure how the boy resolved his problem, but he never came to school again smelling bad and everyone, including his fellow students I’m sure, were happy about it.

I look back at that story today, as a teacher myself, and am heartened. Sometimes what I have to say is difficult to say and hard for some people to hear. It is embarrassing and uncomfortable. It sometimes leads to confrontations, but if something is wrong at my institution, if something smells bad, then it is my duty as a leader in my classroom and at the college to find the cause of that stink and start scrubbing.

I learned how to seek and scrub partly from my grandmother–Margaret Katherine Dabbs, a brave and honorable woman–and I am thankful for the good beginnings she brought to my life, especially my teaching life. I hope I can be her namesake in more ways than one.

Next up–A story about Mama K during the time of school desegregation in Alabama.