Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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August 11, 2013

Love for the written word inspired by a generation of notable teachers

— First grade was scary. As a sheltered child, the baby of five, the thought of going into a classroom environment with a stern teacher was nerve-wracking. At age 6, I knew how to fish, ride go-carts and read (my great-aunt, who was a teacher and vice principal at Bramwell, had seen to that in my pre-school years).

But I didn’t know how I would fare in a classroom with 20-some other children and a rigid teacher. And Ms. Marie Vawder was known as such.

Mom was thrilled when she learned I would be in Ms. Vawder’s class. “She will give you a good start,” Mom said. I wasn’t sure what that meant. My reality at such a tender age was that Ms. Vawder was scary. My older siblings were afraid of her, as were their friends. The first day of school felt like walking a plank.


Kindergarten was easy. My first months were spent at the old Bluestone School in Bramwell because Montcalm’s facilities were not yet ready. Mid-year, we moved back to my community. My memories are of milk, snacks and naps.

Ms. Vawder’s class was not so easy. Phonics and the alphabet were a big part of the first-grade lesson plan. One day I became confused between “g” and “j” during a class lesson. Having known my ABCs for some time, the mistake was humiliating and confusing. I cried all the way home, feeling like a failure.

Welcome to the world of school.


Ms. Vawder, although tough, did provide a firm educational foundation for her students. We entered into our upper elementary school grades well prepared.

My second and third-grade years were a breeze thanks to Ms. Vawder. When fourth grade rolled around, my classmates and I were much older and wiser. But I’m not sure if we were prepared for our new teacher, Ms. Linda Poff.

Ms. Poff was fresh out of college. Mom said this was a good thing and, once again, she was right.

Ms. Poff was exuberant and exciting. She loved to read, and instilled that passion in us. We devoured English and its grammatical rules. We became fans of the written word, and champions of the correct placement of commas.

We were her “crumb crushers,” a nonsensical name that provoked fun and smiles. We reveled in the title.


Junior high was tough — academically and socially. Sure, classes were rough, but at times the biggest question seemed to be who was wearing makeup and what designer jeans they were sporting. Often, school work took a back seat to fashion. Remember, this was an era when Brooke Shields was speaking in commercials about her relationship with her Calvin Kleins.

My friends and I couldn’t get enough of the designer labels. White-patch Levi jeans were the norm. The more parents spent, the trendier the clothes.


Designer labels remained a big part of high school, but scholastics did creep in. Howard Hill, Jack Johnson and Bill Harshbarger with their history lessons. Ruth Ann Cole with her interesting biology classes. Margaret Johnson, who made chemistry fun with her assortment of experiments and projects. And, of course, Judith Adams, who subtly taught life and social skills to students who spent time as library assistants.

Who knew time spent at school could be that much fun? I didn’t, but I was a word nerd — one who was at home in the English department.


Shelby Neal and Nancy Bailey made high school complete. As the Montcalm High School English teachers, they introduced me to Shakespeare, nurturing a young love for “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth,” and fostering a future appreciation for “Hamlet,” “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night.”

They spurred creative writing, written with the correct use of pronouns, commas and ellipses, and taught the importance of research and reliable sources when penning factual papers. Mrs. Bailey’s infamous term paper was a twelfth-grade hurdle every Montcalm General had to complete before being handed a high-school diploma.

Their classes were not easy, but they inspired students to put pen to paper and let emotions, creativity and passion flow.

Once, I arrived home to show my parents a first-person story graded with an “A” — the “first person” being a biology lab frog who awakened in a classroom just moments before dissection. Mom and Dad were proud, but also a bit confused. “Where did you get the idea of being a frog?” Mom asked.

Blame it on good teachers.


As children across the two Virginias head back to school, it is an appropriate time to pause and give thanks to those teachers from the past who made us what we are, and those in the present who are encouraging and inspiring a new generation. Sharp pencils and blank paper pose an exciting canvas.

I think I hear a bell.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at Follow her @BDTPerry.

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