Strict teacher, successful pupils

About three dozen celebrate career of educator, plan library in her honor

November 27, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

If there was one thing pupils at Windsor Hills Elementary School knew, it was that Mrs. Thomas didn't put up with nonsense.

And if they forgot, there was always that paddle hanging on the wall to remind them.

For 20 years in the 1960s and 1970s, Dorothy Thomas and her firm hand taught and guided fourth- and sixth-graders at the West Baltimore school.

Thomas is now 90, and her classroom days are long gone. But her former pupils' memories of their blue-haired teacher remain vivid, fresh and cherished.

"There's always a teacher that all the kids know before the sixth grade," said Cheryl Goodman, who helped organize a tribute to Thomas that took place yesterday. Thomas, who taught Goodman during the 1969-1970 school year, was that teacher at Windsor.

"She wasn't like a nice, sweet teacher," said Ray Nelson, sixth-grade Class of 1971, another organizer. "She had a way of stepping on your shoes, but never to dull your shine."

Yesterday, about three dozen of her former pupils, family and friends gathered for a surprise dinner party to honor the woman who put down her chalk - and paddle - almost three decades ago. They also came to unveil a surprise: plans to name the school library after the persistent educator, whose pupils readily echo one of her catch phrases: "Are you reading with understanding?"

As one former student after another came through the front door of the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center in Baltimore, they poured out stories that painted a portrait of a strict woman who saw their potential and drove them to become the successes they are today - even as they dragged their feet.

"If you put your brains in a bird, he'd fly backward," Thomas would tell them when they were being lazy, sisters Gillian and Alexia Clifton said.

Alexia Clifton, now 41, described her dread when she saw that Thomas would be her instructor. With three sisters who had been in Thomas' classes before her, she knew the sixth-grade educator's reputation.

She recalled trying to get out of a spelling bee by purposely misspelling molasses. She said "molasess" instead.

Thomas would have none of it, Clifton recalled.

"No, no, no," Thomas said. "Give her another one." Alexia said she ended up winning the class, school and city bees, and even placed in the state competition.

Thomas' drive extended to other subject areas, too - as Gregory Deanda, Goodman's classmate and fellow organizer of yesterday's tribute, learned.

Once, a division problem had him stumped. "She made me stand at the board for 20 minutes," until he solved it, Deanda said, and told him: "If you quit now, you're always going to quit." Deanda said he was about to cry. But, he added, "I did learn from that that you can't give up."

Whatever you did, Goodman said, you had to do "all the way."

Three words - written in yellow, red and lavender-blue icing on three cakes yesterday - summed it up: Best. Teacher. Ever.

"She had such high hopes for you," Goodman said. "You wanted to show her you turned out OK."

And so, after Thomas walked into the room where her former pupils awaited her, they lined up to do just that.

"I think about you every time I get my paycheck," said Rose Smith-Sparks, class of 1972, as she laughed and held Thomas' hand. Smith-Sparks, who works for the Internal Revenue Service, then asked Thomas what became of her paddle - which bears the names of Smith-Sparks and others who were acquainted with it.

Thomas said she had almost brought the paddle along. It hangs on a wall in her Baltimore home.

"I didn't expect this," said Thomas, who thought she was meeting yesterday with a couple of former pupils for lunch at the Inner Harbor. "I was only their sixth-grade teacher ... I never thought that they would remember me."

She later told the group, "I am overwhelmed by all the beautiful things that have been said about me tonight. I feel so full with happiness to know ... that you have not forgotten me. Nor have I forgotten you." She added that she was proud of "my children."

Claudette Edgerton-Swain, a Baltimore City teacher who now mentors others, said she hoped she could boast a legacy similar to Thomas' someday.

"This is what any teacher aspires for, is just to know that they have made a difference," said Edgerton-Swain, whose godmother was Thomas' older sister.

Carmen Holmes, Windsor Hills' current principal, agreed.

"Everyone has a favorite teacher," Holmes said. "But Mrs. Thomas seems to be a special entity."

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