By Otha Barham / Outdoors Editor
Otha Barham ©
Editor’s Note: In view of the current Golden Apple Award initiative to honor teachers, my January, 2007 column seems appropriate to revisit. Meridian High and Meridian Community College graduate Frank Charles Winstead of Magnolia, Texas, also appreciates this wonderful teacher. Unlike this writer, Winstead embraced her powerful influence while in her classes and is blessed by it daily as he shares it worldwide in his profession; advocating excellence in classrooms.
The aging lady lay flat in her bed in the nursing home. She could not get up or even move significantly where she lay without triggering dangerous bleeding. She would live only a short time after my visit that day to see her and thank her for her influence on my life. More accurately, I wanted to express long felt gratitude for her attempt to teach me, and to apologize to her for not giving her much chance. This was going to be difficult, what with the lump in my throat and cotton in my mouth.
The last time I had seen Miss Reva Breckenridge was my last day in her Zoology class in 1954, some 40 years earlier. My opinion of her hadn’t had much chance to evolve from the exaggerated assessment, sometimes typical of the immature, which was shared by some of my classmates back at Meridian Community College.
We knew her to be a strict, no nonsense teacher of, for many, the most difficult of courses; the natural sciences. The fact that she rarely was seen smiling at students probably fed the assumption that she would as soon chew you up and spit your juice on the floor as to say good morning.
Of course all was cool with the brainy guys and all the girls (who are always smart) because they entered Zoology class fearless and with that disgusting confidence that “A” students have. And they adored her. But for the lesser qualified like me, she was dreaded. In short I was scared of her.
But a most interesting thing began in her class and blossomed on the way to the rest of my life.
I took Zoology so I could transfer my credits to Mississippi State where they required the course before they would give me a diploma that would qualify me to be a skilled cowboy, my ambition at the time. Miss Breckenridge tried to teach me the names of lizards and birds and skunks and bugs. Are you kidding me?
Why on this earth would anyone need to know, much less want to know, that a common possum was really named Chordata Mamalia Marsupalia Didelphidae Didelphis virginiana? I’ll tell you why. Because even though at the time such stuff was laughable, I would later spend my career in the field of entomology, the insect portion of zoology, after learning that cowboys worked 24/7 for less than minimum wage. And I would have to learn every known scientific fact about Arthropoda Hexapoda Orthroptera Locustidae Melanoplus differentialis and a bunch of his relatives and eventually teach all this “stuff” to college graduates, some with master’s degrees, and ultimately be in charge of the federal government’s national programs on these grasshopper pests, as well as the so called “killer bees.”
Yes, this student who ignored Miss Breckenridge’s efforts to enlighten me, and who felt her disappointment in failing to reach me, ended up in the very field I had dreaded and, moreover, enjoyed and even excelled in.
My attempt to apologize began with thanking her for so generously giving me a C in the course which Mississippi State accepted (with reluctance) and counted toward graduation. I told her she had planted the seed that eventually led to my making a living from that “stuff” that I had detested in her lessons.
My apology didn’t get very far because Miss Breckenridge would have none of it. She was no longer the statuesque lady from Kemper County who stared at me with indicting eyes that melted me into a puddle of guilt. She understood me and even my bragging that was supposed to prove to her what she already knew, that one small lesson among dozens, an admonition, even a look, can influence for the good even the most disinterested student.
“What has all this got to do with the outdoors?” you quite understandably might ask. Well, my work in entomology took me to distant mountains and deserts and grasslands and prairies and other places that stirred my spirit. But the idea for this piece came from my good minister friend Ed Bailey. Ed and I were best friends for a while in school. We had one of our rare visits the other day and something he said led to this review.
“I won’t forget,” he began, “when we were having the final exam in Miss Breckenridge’s class and you came by my house.” He continued, “I thought you came over to study for the test. But you told me you were on your way going rabbit hunting!”
There was still lingering disbelief in Ed’s voice and he chuckled at the memory of my running off hunting when there were the Lepidopteras (butterflies) and Hymenopteras (bees) of zoology to be memorized. “You made a C minus in the course and I made a C plus,” he reminded me. They both showed up as Cs on the report cards and I think that sort of got off with Ed. Anyway, he got me to thinking about my unchanged habit of going hunting, often at the expense of other priorities. And in addition it got me to thinking about Miss Breckenridge.
I visited this fine teacher another time or two before she died. I took her a foot-long rubber grasshopper that she had me place on a table close to her eyes. She was always lying there on her back. But she smiled a lot now and made me feel that the grasshopper meant a lot to her. Still, she wouldn’t let me convince her that I was her worst student.
It was true of course, but I suppose she refused to believe back then that the quiet kid on the back row with the blank look was unsalvageable. I guess that is a thing about teachers. I could now see in her eyes that she was a lot happier that I had done okay in my career than she was disappointed that I had been more interested in rabbit hunting than in frog intestines and cat brains.
I wish I could go back to her class and have another chance. I would work hard this time. And I would try not to think about hunting. I think Miss Reva Breckenridge believed that too.