They may forget what you said —
but they will never forget how you made them feel.
~ Carl W. Buehner
Strictly speaking, Juanita Cox is not family. She was my 7th grade teacher at Garrett Elementary School in Floyd County, Kentucky. Mrs. Cox was one of those very special teachers that we always remember if we were fortunate enough to have had one. I am sharing my memories of Mrs. Cox here to honor her, but also for the benefit of all of those who sadly, may never have known a teacher such as she. And because in her classroom, she made me feel like family.
Two years ago today, I was reading messages in a Facebook group devoted to Floyd County memories and genealogy when I came across a picture of Juanita Cox that someone had posted. As so often happens, her picture and the related comments triggered what had been long lost memories. People and events I hadn’t thought about in many years instantly came flooding back, creating an emotional response that felt nearly overwhelming.
When I was growing up with my two younger brothers and sister, for various reasons our family moved frequently, never settling in one location for very long. As a result, I was in and out of Garrett Elementary School several times during my early years. Looking back after 60 years, I am grateful because nearly every great teacher I have known taught in a classroom at Garrett. Though I did not attend or graduate from Garrett High School, some of my best friends in life did. I rediscovered this when they welcomed me to their class of 1965 reunion. It was the first reunion I had ever attended or even wanted to, and I belonged.
The summer of 2008 my cousin Glenna shared with me that Mrs. Cox had been very ill. She was a former teacher and I had lived next door to her at one time, but I had not seen or spoken with Mrs. Cox, or, truth be told, thought about her at all for many years. Glenna had been visiting with her in the hospital and brought me up to date. This brought back memories of Mrs. Cox and her classroom and, I must admit, not all good ones.
You see, Mrs. Cox was the only teacher in my entire life to spank me with a paddle, and, quite honestly, I deserved it. It was time for recess one day and before Mrs. Cox dismissed the class, she gave us all strict orders to go outside and stay out of the classroom until time to come in. As I remember, there had been some previous trouble when students returned to the classroom and caused problems in her absence.
Anyone who knew me back then could tell you I wasn’t perfect by any means; but they might also add that I was a good student, usually quiet and well-behaved in school. On that fateful day, however, the instructions from Mrs. Cox were quickly forgotten. At some point during recess, I found myself back inside our classroom throwing a ball around with two friends.
I don’t remember the details of how we were caught; probably we just weren’t paying attention when Mrs. Cox walked in on us. I always suspected that someone, probably one of those prissy girls in our class, had tattled to Mrs. Cox. With a somber expression and sadness in her voice, Mrs. Cox informed us that we had given her no choice but to paddle us for disobedience. I don’t know about anyone else, but my jaw must have dropped when I heard that and I just wanted to disappear through the floor.
She can’t mean me, I thought, Mrs. Cox must be speaking to those other boys. Due of the shock, no doubt, I don’t remember the names of the other two who were in trouble with me. I wouldn’t swear to it, but it seems that one of them might have been Carlos. We were good buddies back then and that’s something we would have done. When I recently broached the subject with him, Carlos said he had no memory of this particular incident but Mrs. Cox must have paddled him for one reason or another.
I can still see the look on her face when Mrs. Cox called us to the front one by one for our punishment. There we were, bent over her desk, in front of everyone, and Mrs. Cox gave each of us three hard swats with her wooden paddle. I might add here that she may have felt awfully disappointed and sad, but it didn’t interfere any with our punishment — she knew how to use her paddle. Though it did sting quite a bit, it was not nearly as painful as the sting of shame that I felt afterwards.
As I quietly returned to my desk, I heard someone laugh and whisper, “Look at Kenny! He’s crying!” (Another one of those pesky girls…) Now, I do I remember that my eyes had sprung a leak and my nose was running, but it was mostly due to embarrassment and humiliation. That, and knowing I had hurt Mrs. Cox and come up short of her expectations.
Though much has been forgotten now, there were also memories with Mrs. Cox of the good variety. I can recall the day I was awarded a silver dollar by Mrs. Cox for my science notebook. It was traditional for the top 7th grade students to lead the 8th grade at their graduation ceremony, and Caralita and I were selected at the end of that school year. The day I gave Mrs. Cox cause to paddle me, however, I will never forget.
A teacher myself, I know how meaningful it is when a student tells you that you made a difference. When I learned she was in the hospital, I wanted to visit Mrs. Cox and finally tell her how much she had meant to me. Though it couldn’t have been anything important, life intervened to prevent me from going, and I did not. I asked Glenna if she would convey a message to Mrs. Cox and she not only agreed, but bought a nice card to deliver it in. I will always be grateful to Glenna for that act of kindness.
This was my message for Mrs. Cox:
“Mrs. Cox, you may not remember a ragged little boy who sat quietly in your 7th grade classroom so long ago. He will never forget you. I have allowed far too much time to pass, but I wanted to be sure that I tell you now: for me, you made the difference.
“I will always remember you as one of the best teachers that a young boy could have ever had. You taught me so much, and not all of it was from books. I learned from you that I was someone important, that I had dignity and worth. It’s no exaggeration when I say that in your classroom I learned to be who I am today. I became a teacher myself because I had role models such as you. ”
Someone once said, ‘Your students may remember little of what you teach them, but they will NEVER forget how you make them feel.’ Mrs. Cox, you always made me feel that I had value. You taught me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to do. There are no words to express what that has meant to me.”
Glenna delivered the card with my words to Mrs. Cox not very long before she passed. She told me later that Mrs. Cox was delighted to receive it and that she remembered me. I cherish the thought that Mrs. Cox did remember a sad, shy little boy in her class so long ago. I only hope that day the two of us once shared with a wooden paddle had faded from her memory. Mrs. Cox never mentioned it, nor would she if she did remember. Mrs. Cox was that kind of teacher.