Carl T. Rowan (1925-2000) was born in Tennessee and received degrees from Oberlin College and the University of Minnesota. He worked for years as a columnist for the Minneapolis Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times, expressing his views of a variety of issues, especially race relations. Rowan also served as the director of the United States Information Agency and was the ambassador to Finland.
Unforgettable Miss Bessie
Carl T. Rowan
She was only about five feet tall and probably never weighed more than 100 pounds, but Miss Bessie was a towering presence in the classroom. She was the only woman tough enough to make me read Beowulf and think for a few foolish days that I liked it From 1938 to 1942, when I attended Bernard High School in McMinnville, Tenn., she taught me English, history, civics—and a lot more than I realized.
I shall never forget the day she scolded me into reading Beowulf.
“But Miss Bessie,” I complained, “I ain’t much interested in it.”
Her large brown eyes became daggerish slits. “Boy,” she said, “how dare you say ain’t to me! I’ve taught you better than that.
“Miss Bessie,” I pleaded, “I’m trying to make first-string end on the football team, and if I go around saying ‘it isn’t’ and ‘they aren’t,’ the guys are gonna laugh me off the squad.”
“Boy,” she responded, “you’ll play football because you have guts. But do you know what really takes guts? Refusing to lower your standards to those of the crowd. It takes guts to say you’ve got to live and be somebody fifty after all the football games are over.”
I started saying “it isn’t” and “they aren’t,” and I still made first-string end—and class valedictorian—without losing my buddies’ respect.
During her remarkable 44-year career, Mrs. Bessie Taylor Gwynn taught hundreds of economically deprived black youngsters—including my mother, my brother, my sisters, and me. I remember her now with gratitude and affection—especially in this era when Americans are so wrought-up about a “rising tide of mediocrity” in public education and the problems of finding competent, caring teachers. Miss Bessie was an example of an example of an informed, dedicated teacher, a blessing to children and an asset to the nation.
Born in 1895 in poverty, she grew up in Athens, Ala., where there was no public school for blacks. She attended Trinity School, a private institution for blacks run by the American Missionary, and in 1911 graduated from the Normal School (a “super” high school) at Fisk University in Nashville. Mrs. Gwynn, the essence of pride and privacy, never talked about her years in Athens; only in the moments before her death did she reveal that she had never attended Fisk University itself because she could not afford the four-year course.
At Normal School she learned a lot about Shakespeare, but most of all about the profound importance of education—especially for people trying to move up from slavery. “What you put in your head, boy” she said, “can never be pulled out by the Ku Klux Klan, the Congress, or anybody.”
Miss Bessie’s bearing of dignity told anyone who met her that she was “educated” in the best sense of the word. There was never a discipline problem in her classes. We didn’t dare mess with a woman who knew about the Battle of Hastings, the Magna Carta, and the Bill of Rights—and who could also play the piano.
This frail-looking woman could make sense of Shakespeare, Milton, Voltaire, and bring to life Booker T. Washington and W. E. DuBois. Believing that it was important to know who the officials were that spent the taxpayers’ money and made public policy, she made us memorize the names of everyone on the Supreme Court and in the President’s Cabinet. It could be embarrassing to be unprepared when Miss Bessie said, “Get up and tell the class who Frances Perkins is and what you think about her.”
Miss Bessie knew that my family, like so many others during the Depression, couldn’t afford to subscribe to a newspaper....
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