John Shearer: Bright School Celebrates 100 Years, Part 2

  • Saturday, April 20, 2013
  • John Shearer

When I entered the fourth grade at Bright School in the fall of 1969, I already had been under the tutelage of several teachers and other staff members whom I had enjoyed.

But some of the best experiences were yet to come, as I was about to be taught by a veteran teacher named Winifred Clark, who seemed to have the perfect personality for being a popular teacher.

And until I began putting this story together, I had no idea – or had forgotten – that my longtime art instructor, Mary Elizabeth Jackson, was Mrs. Clark’s sister-in-law.

And then, after an enjoyable time of learning in the fifth grade under Laura Englerth, who helped me to love social studies even more, I had another very upbeat instructor – Janet Reeve – for sixth grade.

In contrast to Ms. Clark, Ms. Reeve was just getting started in her teaching career, a tenure that would actually end after that year, although she would continue to enjoy rewarding careers in different fields.

But despite the differences in age and experience, Ms. Reeve seemed to be a kindred spirit to Mrs. Clark, and had an equally admirable ability to make school fun and interesting.

In connection with Bright School’s 100th anniversary this year, here is the second part of a series looking at some of my teachers, with the focus this time on the late Ms. Clark, the late Ms. Jackson and Ms. Reeve. I interviewed Elizabeth Batchelor of Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- the daughter of Ms. Jackson and niece of Ms. Clark -- at a church in Knoxville where I live now, while Ms. Reeve was interviewed at Cooley’s Fine Clothing.

Maybe this series will inspire you to reconnect with or learn more about your former teachers, no matter where you went to school.

Winifred Clark, fourth grade – Just as her students did, Elizabeth Batchelor remembers Ms. Clark as being a fun person. As the only girl in her family, she would often visit with Ms. Clark and Ms. Clark’s sister, Rose Jackson, as a small child.

“Winifred always took me out Christmas shopping,” she said. “They were just loads of fun. They were just at ease with people, particularly young people.”

During family gatherings as Mrs. Batchelor grew older, Mrs. Clark – whose unusual first name had been passed down as a family name – would talk about her fourth-grade students at Highland Park Elementary, where she taught for decades before coming to Bright.

“It was clear she loved teaching,” Mrs. Batchelor said. “She loved those students.”

Born on June 12, 1912, Mrs. Clark attended Chattanooga High School on Third Street, where she was voted or known as the class poet, according to her obituary. She later attended what became Middle Tennessee State University as well as the University of Chattanooga.

In her 40s, she married an older man, Joe Clark, but did not have any children. As was somewhat more common during the time, she also did not learn to drive until about middle age, her niece said.

But she apparently knew how to steer students toward learning at a young age.

Eventually, her sister-in-law, art teacher Elizabeth Jackson, finally convinced her to join her at Bright School beginning in about the late 1960s. There, she apparently endeared herself to a whole new group of students in her appealing manner.

I particularly remember two incidents in her class during that year. One dealt with a story she told about someone she knew or knew of – apparently back in the Highland Park days to which she would regularly refer – who had part of his hand severely injured from improperly handling a firecracker.

It may have been while we were reading the related book, “Follow My Leader,” but I remember always keeping that in mind when handling firecrackers. So her story had a positive purpose.

The other was more of a lighter moment, when our class put on the play, “Heidi,” and she asked me to play the Alm Uncle, who was the eccentric grandfather of Heidi, played by classmate Lucie Stephens Holland.

It was the only time I had a lead role in a play at Bright, and I remember straining to learn all the lines. And on the day of the play, I recall being pretty nervous, even though I was already getting used to nerves before sports competitions by that time.

But somehow I made it through the play with my silly-looking fake beard, probably due to the calm encouragement of Ms. Clark. I think I was supposed to have some of the funny lines, but I remember Leone Ciporin’s character ended up getting most of the laughs.

However, I still felt honored that Mrs. Clark had asked me to play the role, in part because she thought I had a voice that would carry.

The whole year was wonderful under her, and I am sure I was a little sad when the school year ended.

According to Ms. Batchelor, Ms. Clark retired from Bright in about the mid-1970s and moved to Florida, where she and her sister took care of their mother.

Ms. Clark’s sister also developed a disability, and she had to help take care of her at an assisted living facility in Chattanooga before her sister’s death. But despite having to look after older people instead of young students, she apparently never lost her zestful and appealing personality, Mrs. Batchelor said.

“She was a delight to everybody who lived there,” she said. “She made friends with all the people. Then she later had to move to St. Barnabas, but she was a delightful person.”

Following her death on Oct. 1, 2002, at the age of 90, her obituary announcing her burial at Chattanooga Memorial Park called her the “fun” teacher at Bright.

I would agree with that, and apparently so would her niece.

“I picture her as somebody you always wanted to be around,” Mrs. Batchelor said.

Elizabeth Jackson, art teacher – Although many artists like to take much time and care over a piece of art they are producing, Mrs. Jackson evidently did not get much time to ponder a teaching career at Bright.

Elizabeth Batchelor remembers that the previous art teacher at Bright had to leave right before school was starting in the early 1950s after her husband was transferred to another city, and Mrs. Jackson was soon hired with little advance notice or time for planning.

But her life had certainly prepared her for such a calling. The former Mary Elizabeth Johnson had grown up in Knoxville and attended the now-closed Knoxville High School, which can still be seen by Interstate 40 in downtown Knoxville. It was a popular public high school with a pride and good academic reputation similar to that of Chattanooga High School in the mid- and early 20th century.

She developed an interest in artistic talents at a young age, and I learned that she had been involved in decorating Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville, the large downtown Knoxville church where I now attend, during its first wedding not long after it opened in 1931. A Presbyterian, she would later become involved in First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga over the years.

While majoring in art at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, she met her husband, Roy, a graduate of McCallie School who later worked for Ross-Meehan Foundry in Chattanooga.

After the couple moved to Chattanooga, she began teaching art at Dickinson Junior High on McCallie Avenue before World War II. She was involved in a government-administered art program for handicapped people before working at Bright, although she was mostly a stay-at-home mom by that time. Besides Mrs. Batchelor, they also had Roy, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., and David, who is from Dalton, Ga. None of the children went to Bright, although Mrs. Batchelor graduated from Girls Preparatory School in 1962.

When Mrs. Jackson started teaching at Bright, she taught in an art building that was detached from the now-razed main building in Fort Wood, her daughter said. Initially, she taught art at Bright three mornings a week, which Mrs. Batchelor recalled was quite a change for their family used to having her home most of the time.

Mrs. Jackson, who died on Dec. 17, 1987, was perhaps somewhat unique in that she taught for a decade or more at both the old facility and at the new facility in Riverview after it opened in the spring of 1963.

I think we would usually have art once a week for an hour or longer, and I remember Mrs. Jackson as a teacher who had a somewhat more businesslike manner among the students than the amicable shop teacher Aaron Lowe. But she certainly had an interest in the students and would encourage all levels of talent.

“She didn’t care about talent,” said her daughter, who still has Mrs. Jackson’s weaving loom she used to keep at Bright for students to use. “She thought everybody had something he or she can do on his or her own level.

“She always encouraged all of us to do something.”

Mrs. Jackson was also known for her long hair, which her daughter said was because she had some illnesses as a young person that made her scalp sensitive.

She also had a sensitivity that students could learn. Although she would occasionally sell some woven products, and she also enjoyed doing family Christmas cards and decorating the Riverview Garden Club yearbook covers, she considered herself a teacher more than an artist.

“She was always a teacher,” Mrs. Batchelor said. “The art stuff was her life.”

Janet Reeve, sixth grade – Ms. Reeve arrived at Bright School in the fall of 1970 as a sixth-grade teacher not long after graduating from the University of Georgia and taking additional classes at Peabody College in Nashville.

She was hired by Martha Becton, who was serving in an administrative capacity at the time, and remembered that veteran teacher Mary Alice Peters, who taught the other sixth-grade class, became a good mentor and friend.

“She was a great help to me,” said Ms. Reeve. “I learned an awful lot from her about how Bright School operated.”

She remembered having some good laughs over lunch with Mrs. Peters, who was known for challenging her students academically and lived until the age of 95 before her death in March 2012.

As a young teacher, Ms. Reeve had to learn plenty on her own about how to operate a class as well. Although the students were well behaved the vast majority of the time, she remembered finding a few spitballs after the custodian, “Ells,” pointed them out while cleaning up the room one afternoon.

The next day, to teach them a lesson, she had all the students walk up individually and look at the pile of spitballs that she asked Ells to leave. Although Ms. Reeve was admittedly about to break out in laughter at the students’ somber looks while that was taking place, she believes it taught them a lesson about misbehaving.

That was about the only challenging moment in two years of wonderful teaching there, she said.

“They were two of the richest years of my life,” she said. “I loved the children and I loved being able to give to the children what I could, but the blessing was mine.”

As Ms. Reeve talked, and I surprised her by remembering the late 1960s’ white Chevrolet Impala she used to drive, she pulled out an old scrapbook with Bright photographs and easily recalled the name of every student she had in her two years of teaching.

And those students who have seen her in the years since know she will not only recognize you, but she will also give you an enthusiastic greeting and treat you as if you are one of the most important people in her life.

This enthusiastic and upbeat manner made her a popular teacher. I had her during her second year at Bright and have not forgotten such fun learning times as taking a field trip down to Russell Cave in Alabama and watching in the Bright auditorium all those slides from lengthy trips she had taken around the world in the summers of 1967 and ’68.

In fact, I ended up majoring in geography at the University of Georgia in large part because of the enjoyment I had studying social studies at Bright.

Ms. Reeve said she had taken a lot of field trips in school and thought they were worthwhile. She also wanted students to get interested in politics and thought it was good for them to do various classroom activities related to the elections.

During the 1970 election while she was teaching, Bill Brock and Winfield Dunn were elected Tennessee U.S. senator and governor, respectively, while Robert Kirk Walker – the father of future Bright and McCallie headmaster Kirk Walker -- was elected Chattanooga mayor in early 1971.

Ms. Reeve believed in following politics closely, but her ambitions lay in singing and acting. With musical talents on both sides of her family and after already getting involved in some local productions – including “Madame Butterfly,” which our class saw at the Tivoli – she eventually went to New York after her second year at Bright to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.

She stayed up in New York for several years, roomed with future Girls Preparatory School teacher Suzanne Smartt, and eventually reached the level of participating in some off-Broadway and stock productions.

She later returned to Chattanooga and went back to work for the family business, Cooley’s Fine Clothing, and continued performing in lead roles in local productions and doing special singing engagements.

Ms. Reeve also had to serve as a caretaker for her mother, Sara Cooley Reeve, until her unfortunate death last Monday at the age of 91.

She has had many roles on the stage and in life, including acting out her Christian faith, but teaching at Bright was no doubt one of her most favorite.

“It was an ideal place to start a teaching career and finish it,” she said in her typically upbeat manner. “I made a lot of wonderful friends.”

(To view the first story on the remembrances of several Bright School teachers, click here: )


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