Hands on my shoulders

Florence M. Herbert taught 31 years with warmth and kindness, inspiring her pupils to believe in themselves.

July 18, 1999|By Mike Adams

I WISH I COULD say I'm a fast learner. But I'm not. Nothing has come easy and learning to read was no different. Fortunately, I was blessed with an excellent second-grade teacher, Florence M. Herbert.

Even now, 44 years later, I can feel her hands on my shoulders. Gentle hands that radiated love and patience as I struggled with the tales of Dick and Jane at my old elementary school in Turners Station.

I think I suffered from a kind of reading phobia. I could comprehend words individually, but I had trouble linking them into sentences. The other children snickered when I tried to read aloud, and I eventually became paralyzed by frustration and anger.

I read like a person who stutters, although I didn't suffer from that speech impediment. When we did our reading lessons, Mrs. Herbert would read part of the story aloud, then she would pick students to continue.

When it was my turn, she'd say, "Read aloud, Michael."

"I can't," I'd reply.

"Try," she'd say.

I'd look in the book and the words would come out something like this: "The dog -- the dog -- the dog -- ran -- ran -- The dog ran ... " I felt frightened and alone as I fought with the words, but when I was about ready to quit, I could feel Mrs. Herbert's presence behind me.

"The dog ran -- The dog ran -- The dog ran to ... " Then she'd place her hands on my shoulders, and gently tighten her grip and say: "Read aloud, Michael, continue." And I'd say, "The dog ran -- The dog ran -- The dog ran -- The dog ran to Dick and Jane."

Every sentence I completed was a triumph, like scaling Mount Everest, in my 7-year-old mind. And I could not have done it without those warm hands on my shoulders.

They were hands that said, I love you.

Hands that said, you are special.

Hands that said, Michael, you are somebody.

I'm crying as I write this piece. I'm crying because Mrs. Herbert, my favorite teacher, died this month, and I never told her how grateful I am for her kindness.

A Mass of Christian burial was offered July 9 at New All Saints Roman Catholic Church in Northwest Baltimore. I was there. And somehow I hoped that she knew I had come to thank her. Perhaps she heard my prayers.

"Florence M. Herbert, a retired educator, died Saturday of pneumonia at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson," her obituary said. "She was 76 and lived in Ashburton.

"She began her teaching career ... at a segregated elementary school in Turners Station in Baltimore County. She retired from Norwood Elementary School in Dundalk in 1975.

"The former Florence Milburn was born in Newark, Del., and graduated from Elkton High School in Cecil County in 1940. She earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from then-Bowie State College in 1944 and a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University in 1956. ..."

There's no way a short newspaper obituary could capture what made Mrs. Herbert a great teacher, someone whose influence on me towered over many other dedicated high school, college and grad school teachers who helped shape my life.

Last week, I went to Mrs. Herbert's house and spent a few hours with her husband, Joseph, 81. They were married 54 years, and he still has not come to terms with her loss.

This was the first time I had met Mr. Herbert, although Mrs. Herbert spoke about him often in class.

"She talked about you so much that I remembered you when you called," he said. "She loved all the children down there, but especially you, she talked about you all the time when you were in her class."

My old school, Turners Elementary, still stands, but it has been converted to an apartment building. It was a small school, only eight classrooms, and all of the students lived within easy walking distance. Even after 44 years, Mr. Herbert could remember me because it was such a small, tight-knit community.

Mr. Herbert grew up in Bowie and met his wife when she was a student at Bowie State. In 1944, Mrs. Herbert was one of three black Bowie graduates recruited for the Baltimore County Colored Schools.

I entered her class in September 1955. About a month later, my father died.

"She was worried about you when that happened, Michael," Mr. Herbert said.

Her warmth and kindness helped me through the trauma.

Mrs. Herbert and the other teachers in the school shielded us from the most brutal reality of racial segregation: Separate was not equal. Our school had no library. It was often short of supplies and the books were hand-me-downs from the all-white elementary school in Dundalk. Although we were confronted by the symbols of the white world's contempt, an inferior school building and inferior learning tools, our teachers never let us feel the sting. Their attitude was to make the best with what you have. Don't complain about the book -- learn what's in it.

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