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Sandy Banks

It's Payback Time for a Teacher Who Made a Difference to So Many

February 11, 2001|SANDY BANKS

Millicent Anderson still remembers the daily classroom drills: the rows of sixth-graders lined up at their desks, as teacher Birdilee V. Bright moved down the aisles, inspecting hair, shoes, fingernails.

"You'd have to stand at attention, and she'd check to make sure your hair was combed, your nails were clean and your clothes were neat," recalled Anderson, 60. "Miss Bright meant business. She'd send you to the nurse if you weren't clean. And if you hadn't eaten, she'd feed you--with her own money, because there were no free lunches back then.

"In Miss Bright's class, everybody had better be ready to learn."

Birdilee Bright's former students from 36th Street Elementary describe her in words that don't sound much like terms of endearment: She was stern, strict, a dictator, even. Failing students were publicly reprimanded. She considered a yardstick a disciplinary tool.

But she also lavished so much attention on her students that few left her class without tasting success.

"She was very demanding," said former student Janice Shelby. "She had high standards and held you accountable to meet them. But you also knew that she was in your corner, that she wanted you to be the best you could be. She'd say, 'You're going to learn this,' and when you did, you felt so proud."

She taught more than history and math and science and reading. She taught her pupils to have faith in their own abilities. She taught them to believe in themselves.

*

Miss Bright is waiting, sitting on the bed in her board-and-care home, when I show up for our interview. We are not going anyplace, yet she is dressed for an outing: light green suit, trimmed in brocade, accented by gold jewelry. Stockings and patent-leather heels. Her face is powdered and rouged; her hair impossibly black and impeccably styled. I am grateful that my nails are clean.

She does not quite understand why I have come. "Your former students called me," I tell her. "Millicent, Janice . . . they want me to write about how much you meant to so many people. They want to let your students know that you need them now, that you could use some company."

Her eyes tear up, and she looks away. "My students . . . You know they still call and come see me, after all these years."

Miss Bright will be 90 in July . . . "but you don't have to write that," she says, taking hold of my arm to halt my pen. She laughs when I tell her that none of her students could tell me her age. There are some things you just don't ask Miss Bright, they said.

"Even now," Shelby warned me, "you get with Miss Bright and she's still in charge."

Her memory is a little fuzzy on details these days. She started teaching around 1940--"sometime just before the war"--because "that's what my [two older] sisters had done. That's about the only thing a Negro woman with an education could do."

She never married, never had children. Her only relative was a nephew, who now lives in New York. Her students became her family. "I never coddled them," she says proudly. "I didn't tolerate any foolishness. I knew they thought I was mean, but it didn't bother me. When they came into my class, they were going to work hard."

She revels, even now, in her reputation. "Third-graders used to come up to me on the playground and say they didn't want to come to my class. 'We're scared of you, Miss Bright.' I told them if they did their work, there's nothing to be afraid of. And if they didn't, I didn't want them in my class anyhow."

Parents could either get on Miss Bright's team--and most of them did, gratefully--or she would steamroll over them. "Every now and then, a child would come to me and say, 'Miss Bright, my mother says you have no right to tell us how to dress.' And I'd say, 'You go back and tell your mother that Miss Bright makes the rules in Room 10.' I had very few problems once they knew I was in charge," she said.

She knows that some of her methods might not pass muster today, might be considered unkind or damaging to self-esteem.

Take her classroom seating chart, with rows named A, B, C, D and F. Tests were given every Friday, and on Mondays your grade dictated your seat. Conduct infractions--talking out of turn, chewing gum in class--could get you bounced from A to F in a flash. Her students worked hard to stay off failure row.

"We came up in a different time," reminds Shelby, a retired teacher herself. "Miss Bright had control, and she was a dictator. She could leave the room and we'd sit there like angels 'til she came back. If she said, 'Don't move,' nobody moved. Can you imagine that happening today?"

Several of her students followed Miss Bright into teaching. In fact, when she left 36th Street to became principal at Avalon Gardens Elementary, four of her 12 teachers were former students.

Shelby was one of them. "Miss Bright ran that school like she ran her classroom," she said. "The district required you to teach reading for an hour; she made us teach reading for an hour and a half. And an hour of math every day."

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