I could count on her combing her hair at the same time every day. It was just after the bell at the end of the first recess, the one that signaled the beginning of the next class time. She would open her desk drawer with her left hand and slide out the big black comb with her right hand, easing it up to her head in one smooth, remembered motion. Her hair was really black, parted on the right side, and it lay flat like she had had that part in the same place for as long as she’d had hair. It fell from the part over her ears to just above her chin in a wavy sort of bob.
She always started talking before she finished combing, to inform and relate details to the day’s agenda. I don’t remember that she combed her hair after the afternoon recess; maybe the wind didn’t blow as much on the playground in the afternoon. Or maybe it was just that the morning recess was close to lunchtime and she wanted to look nice in front of the other teachers in the cafeteria. I always thought that Mrs. Sexton was pretty tough and it bewildered me that she could be such a “lady” at the same time. She carried herself with a smooth elegance.
Mrs. Sexton read a devotional first thing every morning from a worn King James Bible while she stood on the left side of her desk. It was 1959, a different time, before diversity and consideration convinced us to leave Bible-reading to the church and home. I met my first Catholic that year, a girl named Wendy whose family transferred from Illinois; my dad supported Kennedy for President. Wendy was also the first girl I ever met who wore Buster Browns.
The old, massive and beat-up oak desk was turned catty-cornered, almost in front of the door, to face the field of sixth-graders. For some reason, it always seemed that she was in the middle of the room. She had a way of engaging the whole group even as she singled out any individual student. I can’t imagine that teaching was hard for Mrs. Sexton; it was as much a part of her as combing her hair after morning recess. I always knew she would miss her conversations with her students if teaching were ever taken from her.
It was from Mrs. Sexton’s morning readings that I first understood the Beatitudes. When she read “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” I heard her familiar and very honest endearment, “Bless his heart.” This was no mere Southern tagline; Mrs. Sexton knew how to issue a real blessing. Years later, I would hear ministers of the Word sermonize that “blessed” was from the Greek meaning “happy,” but twenty-five sixth-graders in 1959 heard the word “loved” when Mrs. Sexton said “blessed.”
Once she read about the Pharisee and the Sinner and how the Pharisee was so smug and self-righteous, thanking God that he wasn’t like “those other people” and how God heard and loved that poor sinner when he was only able to cry, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Sometimes her head would droop and her voice would trail off as she read; I knew that she was resting in the Word.
I don’t remember a discipline problem in Mrs. Sexton’s classroom. A few times the wrinkles between her eyes deepened and she firmly demanded—and got—a change in behavior, but she did not raise her voice. Her voice was Southern soft and slow, coupled with diction made perfect by reading aloud. Her talk revealed deep and consistent compassion with no reluctance to bare itself, even to sixth-graders.
Albert was tall and dark and he was probably two grades behind where he should have been for his age. He came to our class in late September after school had already begun, and one morning, just as we were finishing the Pledge of Allegiance, Albert just fell over. I guess he must have fainted. Mrs. Sexton crossed the room to his desk, helped him to his feet, and walked him out into the hall. When she failed to return in a few minutes, I tiptoed to the door of the classroom and peeked out into the hall to investigate. I was nosy and brave, urged on by the rest of the class’s promise that they were depending upon me, as usual, to report back. Mrs. Sexton stood in the hallway, watching Albert and a lady from the cafeteria edge down the stairs.
“Mrs. Sexton, Mrs. Sexton, what’s wrong with Albert?” I couldn’t help asking.
Her back to me, she answered just loud enough for me to hear. “He is hungry. He’s just hungry.”
“Well, what’re you gonna do, Mrs. Sexton? What’re you gonna do?”
“We’re going to feed him,” she replied firmly, and I knew that she had summoned the cafeteria worker to take Albert to the school kitchen to give him something to eat. When she turned around to head toward the classroom, scooting me along with both hands, I could see that she had been crying.
All she said to the class was “Albert’s going to be fine. We’re taking care of him. Let’s read our Social Studies lesson aloud today.”
We never heard Albert utter a word until that day that Mrs. Sexton recognized him as a natural cast for Abraham Lincoln in the February school play. Wearing a very tall and striking black hat, Albert delivered his lines proudly to an assembly of the fourth and fifth grades, along with the other sixth-grade classes. We strained to hear the quiet, high-pitched delivery of the lines he had perfectly memorized. He never smiled, but then he was quoting some serious words.
Mrs. Sexton stood in back of the auditorium, smiling, hands behind her back.
Many years later, my two sons were zoned for Lebanon’s inner-city school, Highland Heights Elementary. Several friends and other well-meaning parents advised me to send them to a private school, or to use an alternate address and send them to another public school where the proposed benefits included air conditioning, smaller classes, and more “middle-class type” students. I never once heard that the other schools had better teachers. After a few short weeks at Highland Heights, I knew that Jade and John were in the right place.
One afternoon, Jade announced as I walked in the house, “Mom, we had a substitute today, and she says she knows you!”
“Oh?” I tossed the word over my shoulder from the kitchen.
“Let’s see…what was her name…I can’t remember. She said, ‘When I saw those little glasses perched on your face, I knew who your mama was.’ She’s kinda old. She said she was your teacher when you went to Highland Heights and that you were one of her favorites. She only teaches at Highland Heights and she’s real nice.”
“Mrs. Sexton,” I told him. “Ruby Sexton. She is my all-time favorite teacher.”
“What made her your favorite?” Jade asked.
I told him the Albert story.
More years passed; both boys went to college just about the time my husband and I separated for the final time. I was unsettled and lonely. I saw Mary Ruth, an old family friend, at the grocery store. She invited me to visit First Baptist.
“Sit with Ruby and me,” she said.
“Ruby Sexton? You sit with Ruby Sexton?”
“Oh yeah, we’ve been friends for years. You must have been in one of her classes.”
One Sunday morning two weeks later, I slipped into a pew next to Mary Ruth and Mrs. Sexton.
“Ruby, I need to introduce you, or should I say, ‘re-acquaint’ the two of you,” Mary Ruth said.
“Honey, you don’t need to acquaint or ‘re’ or anything, I know Diana Blair when I see her. Diana, step over her and sit by me,” she said.
“Mrs. Sexton, you don’t know how good it is to see you,” I said. “I don’t know how you recognized me after all this time.”
“Oh, it hasn’t been that long, has it?” She paused and patted her silver hair. “You know, I was cleaning out some boxes the other day and I found a little story you wrote. I’ve saved it all these years. It’s the one about your trip to the Smoky Mountains with your family. I always loved that story. It started off, ‘There was a light on before daylight in the Blair’s house on Saturday morning. We got an early start on our visit to the Smokies.’ Do you remember writing that story?” she asked.
“Maybe. Or maybe I just remember going to the Smokies.” We both laughed and I asked, “Mrs. Sexton, do you remember that boy Albert? He was tall and lanky and dark-headed, and one day he fainted during the pledge…”
“Albert. Yes.” She turned her head to face mine and smiled. “Albert, the perfect Lincoln.”