From the time she was little, Vicky Williams always had a love of reading and a thirst for learning. Her first “F” ever was devastating, but also a turning point in her life. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
By Vicky Williams
My worst and best experience in school happened in the ninth grade, my first year at Carroll High School in Monroe, Louisiana. It was a turning point in my life. My ninth grade English teacher, Ms. Betty Moss, taught me a thing or two.
I failed the first test we had in class. I was devastated. I felt she had whipped me with a big stick. I agonized over doing so poorly and was deeply pained. It was the first time I failed an exam. My eyes were drenched in tears and my heart was broken. I felt so wounded and deeply ashamed.
I struggled to tell my mother. I had always brought good news and good grades home from school. It frightened me to bear such bad news. I trembled as I spoke.
“Ma Dear, I have something to show you.” I reached in my notebook fumbling through nervously. I let the page speak for me as tears flooded my eyes.
“Oh baby, I am so sorry,” she said, as she looked at that big, fat red F.
“I don’t know what went wrong. I did study. Only one person passed and he received an A plus.”
“Dry your eyes and don’t give up. I believe in you and you just keep trying. It can’t help but get better.” She reached for me and gave me a long hug.
“Are you hungry?”
“No I am not.” Mother never failed to provide an after school treat before supper. My head was too busy to think about eating. I was anxious to crack open my books and do my homework.
My grades were always in good standing with my parents and teachers from first through eighth grade. Homework took precedence over recreation and play. My parents always stressed education and mother always stayed connected with our teachers. She was the president of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) for several years.
Ms. Betty Moss introduced me to James Weldon Johnson and Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry. I read Dickens and Shakespeare for the first time in her class.
My first book report was on Great Expectations. It was the first book I read from cover to cover. It was very thick and a struggle to complete. It took all of my two-week Christmas vacation to finish. The more I read the more I wanted to read.
Along with the other assignments and determination not to be defeated, I vowed in my spirit to rise above that awful grade. I threw myself into reading, as if I had no tomorrow. My next exam on breaking down sentences and identifying each part came easier. I made an A minus.
Ms. Moss started to gleam in my eyes, as my grade improved. She was tall, slim, dark brown, and sassy. She dressed as if she had stepped out of Vogue magazine, young and stylish. She wore her hair in a mushroom. Her makeup was immaculate. She spoke with eloquence. Her diction was flawless, her enunciation as clear as glass.
There was substance in her actions, depth in her words. She made us work, piled mountains of homework on us, gave pop quizzes, and I made sure I paid attention in class. Once my fear of her diminished, my confidence soared and I conquered her mountain.
She was passionate about teaching, set the bar high, made no excuses, and pushed for excellence. With time, she mellowed in my eyes. She was calm, cool, collected, and fresh out of college. Her bark was worst than her bite. She did not tolerate talking in class unless she asked a student to speak.
She was strict with no apologies. Shirts tucked in, no chewing gum, or students allowed in class after the bell rang. Yes, she pushed us to the limit. However, looking back she got our minds turning, our adrenalin flowing, and captured our attention. Her encouragement and my comeback from failing her first exam changed my attitude. I grew to like her.
She towered over us like a giraffe, taught with purpose and conviction, and carried herself with pride exuding passion and enthusiasm for teaching. She was composed, regal, and confident. “Let your good be better and your better be best,” was the echo of her refrain.
Her call to action was more than teaching. It was about building character, resolve, and motivating her students to think. She taught me that I could fail and get back up, although I stumbled out of the blocks.
I felt like the tortoise not the hare, stayed the course and made it to the finish line. The sweetest grade I ever made was the A that I received in Ms. Moss’s ninth grade English class. It turned my world around.
I moved to California in 1968. It was a year or two after moving that I heard Ms. Moss died in an auto accident. During my teenage years, I would save the allowance my mother gave me to buy books on sale at Thrifty Drug Store and often spent my lunch breaks in the library reading, while attending Los Angeles High School.
The student I became, the worlds I traveled through books, the beauty and knowledge I discovered reading, the magic on pages that inspired me, I attribute to Ms. Moss. She was the catalyst to my thirst and resolve. She encouraged my hunger to do better.
My drive to bounce back from failure and to reach for excellence was because of her. Memories of Ms. Moss shine through as if it were only yesterday.
Many years later, my mother and I were having a conversation about my ninth grade experience. She had reached out to Ms. Moss without me knowing. They were both in agreement that I would be okay. They knew time would change the outcome and my tears would go away.
I dreamed of going to college at a young age. Fortunately, my mother’s dream of me attending college and Ms. Moss’s wishes for me to succeed did not become ashes. I am eternally grateful to both of them. What valuable lessons they both taught me!