Mrs. Reba Wilson Kennedy died at age 91 on Thursday, March 24, 2022, at Oaks at Cedar Shoals in Athens, Georgia. Mrs. Kennedy was one of my all-time favorite Elementary School teachers when she taught me and members of the graduating class of 1962 during our fourth grade year at the old Reidsville School in 1953. She taught all subjects, but reading was her specialty. Additionally, I had the opportunity to observe her in action in her classroom as an elite reading teacher four decades later when I served as Superintendent of Tattnall County Schools.
Mr. R. L. Akins, the principal at Reidsville Elementary school in the 1990s, assigned those students most lacking in reading proficiency during the early primary grades to Mrs. Kennedy. I sometimes visited her classroom in early March after she’d worked with her students about six months. The visits were always the same. She’d invite me to pick a student and a book and have that student read aloud. It was her simple way of emphasizing that she was not “stacking the deck” by using her best student to read from a preselected text.
It was something to see. The children would read almost effortlessly and enthusiastically. Sometimes Mrs. Kennedy would caution them to slow down and pronounce their words more carefully. When he or she finished, Mrs. Reba would smile appreciatively.
“Now,” she would say. “I’m going to pick someone,” and she’d call a name and the student would come forward and allow me to choose a book. The student she always picked was one who began the year diagnosed as a least proficient reader, and they read with confidence and pride.
She began teaching in 1951 and retired in 2010. She stayed home with her daughter Emma for five years beginning in 1965 before returning to the classroom. At the beginning of her career, reading materials and resources were scarce. She wrote to text book companies asking for any additional instructional materials, and she still had a pamphlet entitled “Your Child can Learn to Read” that she ordered (probably from the textbook company of Row, Peterson, and Company). It listed for 39 cents, but they sent it to her free. She gradually built a personal library of reading materials and resources to help her serve her students better.
Mrs. Kennedy was one of the sweetest ladies I’ve ever known, but in the classroom she was focused and all business. One of the stories I have written about her over the years and passed on verbally to anyone who would listen involved what I refer to as “The Great Rock Throwing War of 1953.”
Few people remember that the lunchroom at the Reidsville School (first grade through grade 11) was under the wooden gymnasium at the school. Mrs. Reba’s 4th grade classroom was the first room on the right of the west wing hallway after entering the dual front doors of what is now the Board of Education Office, and the high school classrooms were on the opposite end of the building
We always had a short recess after lunch on the playground between the old gym and the school building. Sometimes some of my friends who were not completely housebroken would initiate a rock throwing war whereby we took target practice using each other for targets.
Someone reported those skirmishes before we went to lunch one day and Mrs. Kennedy specifically forbade such activities since someone could be hit accidently in an eye or a window might be broken. As I exited the lunchroom and started up the hill toward the school building, a quarter-size rock hit me mid-chest and my current good neighbor, Ted Tatum, was standing 50 feet away with a big grin on his face. I immediately picked up the rock and returned fire. The late Northern Anderson, Ronnie Webb, Joe Smith, and Roy Hightower joined in the fray. I retreated and ran directly into Mrs. Kennedy.
That was a “Bad Day at Black Rock” for the warring factions. Northern, Ronnie Webb, Joe Smith and I were captured and became prisoners of war on the spot, and we were tried, convicted, and sentenced in a matter of minutes after returning to the classroom. The sentence involved a thorough application of the dreaded “board of education” in front of the entire class. The Great Rock War of 1953 ended abruptly.
Ted Tatum escaped punishment by ducking behind the school building. About 15 years ago Northern Anderson and I volunteered to hold Ted if Mrs. Kennedy would give him his licks, but she allowed that the statute of limitations had run out.
It is necessary to bring up that experience for various reasons. First of all, it’s a precise example of the fact that Mrs. Kennedy meant what she said. We’d been warned, and we suffered the consequences. But ask any of the above listed group who their favorite elementary teacher was and Mrs. Kennedy’s name will surface immediately. It is proof that children have no ill-will and actually respect adults and teachers who enforce the rules while teaching youngsters to do the right things and develop valuable life skills.
In the mid-1990s, Mrs. Kennedy called my office and asked if I’d like a copy of the fourth grade reader entitled Singing Wheels which was being replaced by modern reading materials. The book chronicled the adventures of a young Tom Hastings who was moving to the fictional American frontier village of Hastings’ Mills. The boys in our class enjoyed the outdoor stories and everyday experiences of men and boys on the frontier (I think the girls liked it too). I jumped at the opportunity and chose three books which were copyrighted in 1957 and in relatively good shape. Earlier copyrights were 1954, 1947 and 1940, and I’d guess our books in 1953 were copyrighted in 1947. Mrs. Kennedy believed Singing Wheels was a classic reading textbook because it provided a grade appropriate and interesting historical view of life in the early years of the United States while improving student reading skills. One of those fourth grade reading books has a position of prominence on my mantle.
But more importantly, I was not one of her star students yet Mrs. Kennedy remembered how much I enjoyed Singing Wheels more than four decades later. Obviously she understood her students on an individual basis.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of her educational career was how she transitioned from teaching children in the 1950s to teaching children in the early 2000s. She taught classes with as many as 40 students and some with as few as 14. Her philosophy was simple. Each child is different and learns differently. Determining how they learn is the key to success, and then concentration and hard work produce desired results. Failure was not an option.
In 1953 our class probably numbered about 20. In her reading class she always worked individually with students who were reading below grade level while allowing one of her better students to serve as a student assistant to supervise the oral reading exercises of the more proficient students. Classmate Andrea Boyd was an excellent reader who often served in that capacity. Suffice to say it was not wise to disrupt her class. If Mrs. Kennedy called your name and summoned you to where she was working with individual students, she could explain potential consequences clearly.
But if she had a laser focus on student success her class, she also had a great sense of humor. Once in a science lesson when she was providing a short explanation of genetics, she used an example pertaining to the boys. “If your mother’s brothers are bald, there is a very good chance you will be bald,” she said. Immediately my close friend Ronnie Webb leaned back in his desk and blurted out. “Oh No!”
For a while some of us thought we might get to go out to an early recess because Mrs. Kennedy couldn’t stop laughing.
Mrs. Reba Kennedy grew to adulthood during the Great Depression and clearly understood the value of education. But even as she pushed students to do their best and nipped at the heels of those of us who slacked off occasionally, she was universally loved by her students regardless of whether she taught them in 1951 or 2010. Mention her name and the response almost always ends with “she was the best teacher I ever had.”
Surely that is because she loved children, and they knew it. When she retired in 2010, she stated that “Children are like dogs and cats in a way. They can sense if you love them, and they respond. I’d go back tomorrow if my health permitted it. I truly loved it.”
That statement is a verbal portrait of the life of a tremendous teacher and a wonderful lady.