Perhaps the greatest juxtaposition of my life was sitting in a second-grade classroom in Bowlegs, Okla., under the tutelage of Ms. Octavia Duncan. That name did not fit within the narrow geography of Bowlegs, one of those small American towns that only existed because two state highways met in perpendicular fashion at a four-way stop that was not trafficked enough to warrant a stoplight. South of that intersection was Glenn’s Gas Station, Vandever’s Store, and my great-grandmother Jo’s shuttered diner, closed since before I was born.
Mr. Vandever still kept paper “accounts” to keep track of who owed how much each month. Glenn was a one-armed mechanic and attendant, who, according to my mother, lost his arm while waving out the window of a car as a semi rolled past in the opposite direction. My mother usually told this story when my brothers or I were hanging out the windows of our family car; seat belts were not being treated as messianically as they are these days. That Glenn even had a legend attached to the loss of his arm—truly, it was probably a WWII or Korean War injury—speaks to the ways in which small things become large in a town the area of which is 3.745 square miles, and that makes it sound much larger than it felt at 8-years old.
Just south and east of that four-way intersection were Bowlegs Elementary, Bowlegs High School (Go Bison!) and Bowlegs Assembly of God, the church that shaped and ruined and ultimately bored me. The high school still bore the hallmarks of a WPA project: short perimeter walls—short enough for an 8-year-old to jump atop—made from native stone. The elementary school was one of the state’s poorest, so we ate pinto beans and cornbread at least once a week to stretch the food budget. I can’t even remember why we were in Bowlegs anymore, but the absence of my father from my memories makes me think it was because he was on a “remote” duty assignment for the Army, probably Korea. We were living with my maternal grandmother temporarily; she lived in Bowlegs most of her life, having returned from Bakersfield, Calif., as one of the Dust Bowl refugees returned home.
Octavia Duncan taught 2nd grade, and she had been teaching elementary school most of her life. I have no idea why she was in Bowlegs. I’ll likely never know. Given the near impossibility of an 8-year old estimating old age beyond descriptors like “old,” “really old,” “my parents’ age,” and “ancient,” let’s just say she was in the “really old” category, probably in her 60s. She oversaw classroom activities with the discipline and authority that only adheres to those who have decades of experience, who foresee issues, who see bruises and puffy eyes, who see hungry children try to hide their hunger or struggle to stay awake, who recognize nascent skills and intelligence, who recognize the signs of well-ordered households, and who love to teach, but most importantly, really like children.
My mother’s recounting of my experiences has made Ms. Duncan into a ever-virginal, authoritarian, bitter schoolmarm, but that can’t have been the truth. We don’t often recognize how our parents’ shape our earliest memories, and there is a reason children will say “tell the story again” over and over and over. They are filling in details of their hazy memories, and they are at the mercy of their parents’ perspective, including biases and assumptions.
I remember liking Ms. Duncan. I remember fearing her, too, but in the way you fear someone you don’t want to disappoint. Had she been cruel or authoritarian or disinterested, I would not have a pleasant if nebulous memory of her. My mother took offense to Ms. Duncan’s feedback on many of my assignments: Not good enough. You can do better. My mother was still viscerally angry about the feedback 20 years later. I assume she still would be if I asked her today 45 years later.
At Bowlegs Elementary, the grades were not A-F; they were rather varying degrees of satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The homework grades were adorned with a U or an S, and Ms. Duncan would write her feedback at the top of the page, a practice I adopted as an educator. For the bulk of my assignments, I received the feedback already noted. My mother saw some sort of perverse obstinance of Ms. Duncan’s part to accept that I was gifted and brilliant, but I’ve come to believe that Ms. Duncan already knew that part, but what she saw was a tendency to value social interaction over actual work, and so she took steps to foster a tenacity in me related to writing things. The feedback was almost always tacked onto the top of penmanship, vocabulary, or grammar lessons, never math or any other subject.
I am a writer today because Ms. Duncan saw something, some emerging skill with words, and she responded, not by patting me on the head and telling me I was wonderful, but by creating a program of instruction with feedback that pushed me to develop the skills that have served me so well throughout my life. I did not need the kind of affirmation that many neglected children need; my mother fawned over me, and people generally liked me, so I responded to their attention with attention of my own. Ms. Duncan recognized the dangers of that course, and so became the sole voice in my life that pushed me to do the hard things. Talking came easily to me, but writing requires a commitment to words and grammar and tone and clarity, and so penmanship was important, not because I need calligraphic handwriting, but because clarity matters, both written and spoken.
I’m not sure what that one academic year has been worth in terms of my lifelong development. It’s nearly impossible to quantify, but we are in the midst of an experiment in Oklahoma that is attempting to do just that: quantify the value of educators. I’m writing this week because the teachers are walking out because they’ve been undervalued for too long. I’m for them. Calling someone a teacher is reductionist to a fault. Yes, they teach, but they also shape lives in ways that we can’t predict, and I sincerely don’t know how to quantify that except to say, “Give them all the damn money.”