By Sonny Scott
Since entering the first grade in 1953, I have spent thousands of hours in classrooms. The desire to “hobble down to posterity on crutches of capital letters” has put me in the company of dozens of teachers. I know a little about teachers: good and bad, dedicated and indifferent, learned and semi-literate, radical and reactionary, angry young men and bitter old men, old soldiers and old coaches, Ph.D.s and SOBs. Yes sir, I have known some teachers.
Our lady elementary teachers were uniformly excellent at old Woodland, like most primary teachers, I suspect. (Teaching lends itself to the feminine qualities.) As I progressed through the grades, the male influence became more pronounced. Generally, men teachers suffered in comparison with their female counterparts. They were easier to distract (“Ask him about his bird dog, Danny!”), and ever ready to get out of the classroom (“Yes’m, Mrs. Gordon, the boys and I will be glad to paint that for you…”). Some of them were on their way to jobs in administration, and some to other trades. But there was Mr. Crumby…
It’s not likely that he thought of himself as a teacher. Farming was the only widely respected occupation in our area. His father was a medical doctor, but was a farmer who practiced medicine on the side. The farm economy in the 50s was so bleak that even “gentlemen farmers” sought supplemental sources of income. Hence, Mr. Crumby the farmer became math teacher at Woodland High School. Actually, he taught several things: biology, chemistry, government, Mississippi History, as well as algebra and geometry. I had credits in sixteen academic subjects, and Mr. Crumby taught six of them.
He was everybody’s favorite, and we watched with amusement as he’d come sliding to a stop in front of the school as classes were taking in. He would have already been to the fields to set the hands to their tasks, and he’d scurry down the hall, limping from his war wound, with a grade-book stuffed with marked papers in his hand. His classrooms were lively places. He had a gruff good humor and high energy level that were contagious. Naturally intelligent and gregarious, he brought an intimacy and intensity to teaching that cannot be taught or affected. Like perfect pitch, you have it, or you don’t – and he had it. He had the biggest course load of any teacher in the school, and in spite of his agricultural pursuits, he taught with gusto. It was a job, and he made a hand. At the end of the day, he would bolt for his Chevy pickup and head for Topishaw Bottom.
He was uniquely suited to the task before him. Despite our excellent start in elementary school, we country boys were beginning to feel our oats. Schooling is girl stuff, and we were eager to get started at being men. (It didn’t help that some of the men teachers we’d been exposed to were ineffectual.) Mr. Crumby, by golly, was all man. He had the commanding presence, powerful intellect, and no-nonsense approach to life that communicated to us, “This is something important, and you young gentlemen had best pay attention!” As a teacher, few were his equal, and none his superior. I never had a better teacher on any level.
Whenever I am disposed to count my blessings (an exercise that comes more readily as my birthdays add up), I include my time at Woodland School among them. This was a neighborhood school in the best sense of the term. Our teachers knew the school patrons by their first names. We had few of the carpetbagger “professional educators” who were climbing up the career ladder, and few of the equally obnoxious missionaries who came to bring enlightenment and culture to “the poor” with the saccharine condescension that stuck in my craw. Our teachers were our neighbors, and they taught like they cared. The best of them could have gone to greener pastures and been better rewarded. Mr. Crumby had a master’s degree, a real M.S., not one of those dime-a-dozen M.Ed.s that some of us wasted so much money and effort to get. They chose to put down roots, and bloom where they were. Thank God for them.
The flowers are gone. The raw red wound in the Webster County hilltop will soon be carpeted by spring’s verdant growth, but the wound left in our hearts will linger.
Garth Floyd Crumby
Sonny Scott is a community columnist who lives in Chickasaw County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.