Every fall they filed into her room, sullen, unwilling. They mumbled, stared at the floor, shuffled their feet, hid their cigarettes. For an entire year–an eternity for a fourteen year old–they would be her close companions: pimply-faced rednecks, spoiled brats, jocks, geeks, boys with their sleeves rolled up to their armpits, reeking of cigarettes and dust from the rocky playing fields at Lanier Jr. High, Macon, GA, where she tried to distract them from bouncing balls and girls with the phylogenetic scale. She had no Smart Board or Power Point. No dry-eraser board for all the colors of the rainbow. She certainly did not have a decent salary. I can imagine the uncharitable thoughts that probably went through her mind as she got her first glimpse of the new crop, dragging in, one after the other, bored, and boring.
In all likelihood Mrs. Mary Eva Harper located the class of ’63 somewhat lower in the Darwinian pecking order than we would have appreciated; nonetheless, we “liked” her, although “like” is certainly a volatile verb to ascribe to the affections of any fourteen year old male. We fashioned ourselves an anointed lot. We were in an all boys public school in our Bass weejuns, our alligator belts and madras shirts, slumped over in our desks in her un-air-conditioned room at the end of that dark hall where we were wanting in one gift only: humility. How she tolerated the pre-air conditioning stink alone beats me, but she did and did so with panache, wry humor and an occasional thrust of Periodic Chart wit that left our jaws on the floor.
No self-esteem boosting for Mary Eva Harper, though. No therapeutic double-speak–“We need to work on his self-image”– to insure parents that Johnny was receiving lots of coos and strokes in Mrs. Harper’s class. It was get it and get it now! This train is leaving, son! If you want to be left behind, ignorant and clueless about science, then take your time and turn in your homework next week. You’ll do just fine—and flunk.
Fun? Try an Encyclopedia Britannica filmed account of the Venus fly trap in action. Many of us sat and watched that helpless fly thinking: that’s what she’s going to do to me if I don’t get the science project in on time! Those Venusian spikes closing painfully slow onto the glue-trapped fly. Media in the schools were more incentive- oriented in those days.
With her posse of Marvin Davis, Guyton Carr, and Ouida Poe in the school named after Georgia’s first poet laureate, she served in the trenches with a grace and dignity I have often recalled myself in situations where I’ve wondered how to tolerate such and such a person or how to endure this or that blizzard of paper work. Mary Eva Harper was a touchstone in my life. I am a teacher myself, Latin and English, and I praise God He put her there and even though I never had a chance to thank her properly, I hope she recognizes, even as I write this, how much my life, how much many lives were shaped by her wise and witty touch.