Our Voices for July 16, 2011

Remembering teacher who made difference

One of my favorite schoolteachers passed recently. And she will not be forgotten.

The time I spent in Eleanor Matthews Jones’ ninth-grade accelerated English class was the most frustrating, painful and best nine months I ever spent in school.

It changed me as a student and a person.

It was the 1968-1969 school year. It was the time of civil rights marches, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, black had become beautiful and we were saying it loud, we were black and proud.

Yeah, yeah, all that was great with Mrs. Jones, but she had a job to do — teach us English.

There was no “he or she is trying to talk white” with Mrs. Jones. (That kind of foolish talk still haunts some segments of the African-American community.)

There was one English, and you either mastered it or you failed. Mrs. Jones was the Vince Lombardi of English. I could imagine her borrowing from Lombardi’s famous line, saying: “Learning English is not everything; it’s the only thing.”

Subject-verb agreement was the rule of the day. Slang was something you used on the basketball court with “ya boys.” If she heard bad English, she would stop the conversation and force you to correct yourself. I thought she was nuts.

I was a committed jock then. I loved football and baseball, was a pretty good basketball player, too.

Reading and writing was a necessary evil that I had to do before going to practice. I wasn’t horrible at either, but I just didn’t like it.

Mrs. Jones proved to me that Charles Dickens was not a cornerback for some pro football team.

Indeed. She had me read the book “Great Expectations,” written by the author Dickens, not the cornerback.

There were names such as Pip, Magwitch and Miss Havisham in the story, sort of like those Harry Potter names young folks talk about today.

Also, Mrs. Jones told us we would read about 20 books — none with pictures — that year. Twenty books! I brushed that off as first-week-of-school bravado. All teachers have that.

Well, what do you know? We actually read 20 books, including my favorite at the time, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And to make matters worse, she required us to sit, one at a time, in front of her to explain the book and answer her questions. She killed the use of Cliff Notes. You actually had to read the whole darn book.

Soon I discovered there was some exciting stuff in books. I began to love words, and my little world expanded across continents. Simultaneously, my writing started to improve, and “Yes, Lawd,” I began to speak better.

I even committed heresy among the cool set by reading books that were not, yes, were not, part of an assignment.

Years later, after I became a newspaper reporter, I went back to McKinley Middle School on a story and discovered Mrs. Jones was still there working with students.

“Lord, you were the last person that I thought would be doing what you do,” she told me smiling. “All you knew was sports.”

“Yeah, that’s right, until I met you,” I said, causing both of us to laugh.

Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is epratt1972@yahoo.com.