Ansel Head’s father’s friend, Mr. Marks, used to say that everybody had gone to school but no one had been “in” school until they had attended Miss Ward’s. Attending all four years of her elementary academy had made Head a lifetime member of the in-crowd.
Miss Ward was elderly even during Mr. Marks’s attendance. Nevertheless, during Head’s tenure, she retained her formidable force and was in much demand. Dullards needed not to have applied no matter what their parent’s social standing.
The small school room was in the rear parlor of her Victorian house on a corner lot across the street from Ramsey High School. There were four rows of six traditional, well worn wooden school desks; the tops were hinged allowing access to the storage bins for books and papers; in the upper right corner, round holes with blue stained edges had once held ink jars, but Miss Ward had dispensed with this hazardous curriculum many years earlier.
All desks faced the same wall from which hung a blackboard and maps of the US and world. To the right was a never used, coal burning fireplace with a built-in mirror over an oak mantel that held the reams of wide-ruled paper that each parent had had to contribute along with their checks; to the left were two large single pane windows with wavy glass that looked out onto the sidewalk and street. Head could not recall what if anything hung from the back wall because to turn one’s head from facing front would immediately invite the strict reality that was Miss Ward.
Each row of desks represented a classroom year with the first grade sitting next to the fireplace and closest to Miss Ward’s chair and blackboard and the fourth next to the windows; after three previous years under her guidance, fourth graders had learned to never gaze outside, even when the windows were open on hot days in the fall and spring, and especially when Miss Ward’s back was turned.
She was a tiny woman, under five feet and thin, but her demeanor belied her slight frame. Standing erect and speaking forcefully, she displayed no fear or trepidation. Every day with her was formal and the same: A dark grey suit with a straight skirt falling well below her knees, a white starched blouse underneath the jacket and buttoned up to the neck, a cameo broach below her left shoulder, wire rimed glasses that slightly magnified her narrow, dark darting eyes, pale red lipstick shading thin lips, and grey hair streaked with a few black strands tied into a tight bun on the back of her head. Her shoes were black leather and practical, not the kind worn and complained about by Head’s mother and grandmother. Her accent had to have been Southern because she sounded like everybody else in Head’s childhood.
To her, the job had nothing to do with hugging and kissing children, which she never did. If one cried in class, you were excused to the front hall until you composed yourself. There was no reward and praise for insignificant or even significant achievements; she expected her students to master what they needed to learn so they could educate themselves for the rest of their lives. That they would do this was for no reason other than that is what she expected.
One day as was her custom, Head’s grandmother who was an outwardly loving person asked him, “Who do you love?”
“Miss Ward”, the silly boy answered much to his grandmother’s chagrin.
Her school hours were short by public school standards, starting at nine and ending at noon. But that was all the time she needed for her well organized routine. Simultaneously, she would be teaching a first grader the alphabet, a second grader would be practicing writing, a third grader would be reading aloud, and a senior would be working out math problems. It was intense but no one knew any different. Every student ended the year well ahead of his or her contemporaries.
Half way through the morning, she would take the students outside to play a frolicking game of “red light” on the sidewalk next to her house. The hill was steep. Her wards would start down it at full speed; she would call out red light and everybody would try to stop. When the gaggle reached the alley, everybody would turn around and on her command race to the top. This exercise would continue for fifteen or so minutes or until she decided that the accelerated blood flow had re-oxygenated their brains. Recess occurred whether it was cold, hot, raining, and even after an occasional snow.
Going to school that first year was especially enjoyable. Head’s mother preferred to have breakfast in bed rather than become obligated to drive him to school; his father wanted to get to work by eight a full hour before Miss Ward would accept arrivals. So their grand compromise let Head ride with his father to the Hill warehouse. There he would wait in the garage with the mechanics who maintained the delivery trucks, listening to their stories and warming himself next to a large pot-belly stove. At the appointed time, Alfred would drive the youngster to Miss Ward’s in a company pickup. Envious school mates had to travel in ordinary cars.
This arrangement changed in his second year after Head’s sister had pitched such a fit that she was allowed to start Miss Ward’s a full year earlier than was normal. His parents thought the rude, but practical education in the Hill Company garage unsuitable for a feminine upbringing and thus the Heads joined a riding group. The boy, though, could not remember his mother ever driving them to school. In looking back he suspects she traded her morning shift for several afternoon turns.
On a hot July day while he was still enrolled, Miss Ward came to Head’s birthday party. Kids were running around everywhere paying little heed to mothers trying to corral them for photographs, cake, and ice cream. Intervening, Miss Ward clapped her thin hands twice. Children, most of whom did not know her, came to attention, lined up in orderly fashion, and marched straight to the table. She never said a word. Even the ladies ceased talking and lined up in orderly fashion.
Head’s best friend, Ross, had spent his first year in her school, but his parents decided to send him to Crestline, the public facility in the Tiny Kingdom. Following his first day, his teacher informed his mother that her son was ill prepared for the second grade and should be held back. “He does not write his last name on his papers,” she criticized. Mrs. Forman called Miss Ward.
“Ross did not need to use his last name in my school,” she informed the teacher and her principal. “I know the names of my students.”
“However”, she continued, “if you would bother to check, you will see he can write complete sentences and paragraphs, can read your third grade books, and can add, subtract and do part of his multiplication tables. He knows the states and their capitals, can recite poems, and knows important facts of American history. I hope Ross does not become too bored in your second grade waiting for your students to catch up with him.”
That day, the teacher and principal learned a valuable lesson: Never challenge a woman twice your age and half your size, especially one who had been successfully teaching Birmingham’s brightest for fifty years.