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Students Enlighten Writer On His Late Mother's Legacy


With the end of the school year, we could focus on everything that students will forget, the capital of Wyoming, the formula for a right triangle or the titles of the tragic plays of Shakespeare. But what many students will never forget is that one special teacher who really made a difference, who saw things in us that others did not.

Today, we'll hear a story about a teacher whose entire class says she did that for them. Washington Post writer Steve Hendrix wrote about his mother and the students she inspired in a recent piece for The Washington Post magazine, which we dig into just about every week, and he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. STEVE HENDRIX (Writer, The Washington Post): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, you had a particular reason for wanting to go back and talk about the impact that your mother had on these students. Did you want to tell us what that reason was?

Mr. HENDRIX: Well, I've been thinking about her a lot lately. She died when I was 13 years old. So as I got to be an adult approaching the age that she was when she died, I spent a lot of time putting myself in her position. I had certainly felt sorry for myself over the years losing my mother, but I began to think a lot more about what it must have been like for her to know that she was leaving a couple of kids behind in less than ideal circumstances.

And then when an old student of hers came to town on business and called me up and we got together. And in the course of talking about his successes in the world of acting, he surprised me by saying, you know who I really thank for this is your mother. And he told me how meaningful she was to all her students. She really only had one real year of teaching before she died. It was a career that she kind of had to adopt when she found herself a divorced mother of two kids with no other professional experience.

And when he said, if you talk to anybody in that class, you'll find out what she meant to them. My reporter antenna went up and said, I'll do that.

MARTIN: You write about her in a very evocative way and I always wondered, was this a recovered memory from talking to the students or was this something that you remembered of her yourself?

You write: Elfrieda Booker Hendrix was always the unlikeliest of small town teachers. She was striking and leggy, known for big sunglasses, fiery hair, even the occasional feathered boa on nights out. She stood out in Americus, a town of 18,000 set amid the pecan groves of southwest Georgia, where she sported one of the few minx stoles to be seen at Friday night high school football games.

Do you remember that or was that a memory that came to you because of talking to her students?

Mr. HENDRIX: No, that's the image of my mother that I've carried around with me for many years. She had a big personality and a real flair about her. She loved drama and wordplay and she liked to be the center of attention, and she was pretty good at getting in that place.

MARTIN: She came to teaching later in life after she found herself a single mom and had to support her family. But she was selected to start something like a talented and gifted class, which was the first in that area. And many jurisdictions have them now. But back then it was considered very new. Do you have any sense of how she was picked for this job and how she thought about it?

Mr. HENDRIX: Well, I think she was an interesting person for that town at just the right time. This was in the aftermath of some very ugly desegregation battles in Americus and what they called the segregation academies had opened up a few years before. And they had already lost a huge proportion of the white students of that class.

And so they were really eager to keep as many of the students who were scoring at the tops of tests as they could. And so they decided to institute a program where they would pull out the top testing kids and put one teacher in this one classroom for one year.

MARTIN: Talk about some of the things that she did in the class that they remember to this day.

Mr. HENDRIX: Well, in a school system where there wasn't a lot of innovation, she had them start little checking accounts that they kind of maintained through the school year. She took them shopping in grocery stores to teach them personal finance. She had them produce a newspaper for the class.

The most ambitious project was they produced a play. It was Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." They built all the sets, with their parents worked on all the costumes, the children directed with her supervision and it really consumed about the first half of the year. And she managed to find ways to fold all the other subjects into the course of this play. Social studies was Dickens and art was set building.

And I think it really captured their attention and their interest. And somehow or another, she convinced someone at Georgia Public Television, this class of fourth and fifth graders should come up to Atlanta and tape this show for a holiday special. So it turned into a really magical achievement for these kids that all of them cite now as life affirming and then some of them say life changing.

MARTIN: Well, obviously some people did go on into the world of theater, one student who started you on this journey did become a professional actor. But it had an impact on children who had no intention of going into theater. Like, there was one woman who became a lawyer. Tell us about that.

Mr. HENDRIX: Yeah. Cynthia Counts is a very respected First Amendment lawyer in Atlanta now, as I've come to learn. And she was, you know, one of the town's kids in that production and learned a little bit of poise and public speaking. And then another project in that class was a mock trial, where Cynthia was an attorney for a kid accused of a pretend bike theft. And my mother roped in the town's mayor as the judge and he was a lawyer and he contacted her parents and said you should keep an eye on her and encourage her to go to law school.

MARTIN: And she did.

Mr. HENDRIX: And she did.

MARTIN: But to the point of the class, it only lasted in that special way for one year. And part of it was jealousy, right?

Mr. HENDRIX: I think that's true. No one had done this before. And by the end of that year, both other teachers and other students had certainly noticed. And the principal were hearing from everybody else in the community, we want our kids in a classroom like that, which is understandable.

So the very next year they turned it into a more disperse program where kids would stay in regular classrooms and go to her class one day a week. And so, more kids got to participate. It certainly wasn't quite the intense experience, but it was more equitable.

MARTIN: Obviously this is a wonderful thing for you to be able to do to recapture your mother in this way to see her as you were not able to. One of the things you write about in the piece is that you were kind of in the throes of your adolescent fog, if you want to call it that.

But you really weren't able to kind of connect with her at that time just because you were doing you were just not there yet. Did going through this reporting process and kind of figuring out what she meant to these kids did it make you feel better or worse?

Mr. HENDRIX: It made me feel much better eventually. I mean, I guess there's no good time to lose your mother, but I had suggested that the worst one may be right at the edge of adolescence when you're sort of emotionally entombed and, you know, of course I wasn't aware that she was getting sick and would die so suddenly. But I was like most 13 year olds, including my own, in the process of pushing her away at that time.

And in the decades since then, the one overriding emotion I've had about that was just the awful sense of timing that I know now that I would have gotten out of that phase and reconnected with her as the wonderful woman that she was. But, you know, when I woke up from that she was gone.

And having a chance to talk to people who did know her at that time, when she was doing this remarkable job of reinventing herself and connecting with these children, it told me what a great genius she had for looking at people and kids in particular and seeing them for their potential and for what they were.

And now I understand that she certainly did that with me, too. So I feel a lot better about her not blaming me for being a little silent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Till...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, what do you think is there a broader lesson here about education?

Mr. HENDRIX: I've learned that any teacher who takes the time to look at a student very directly and very personally and try and understand that student and what they're bringing to the classroom can have an enormous impact.

MARTIN: Steve Hendrix is a Washington Post staff writer. If you want to read his piece, and we hope you will, it's titled "My Mother's Class." We'll have a link on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Steve Hendrix, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. HENDRIX: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.