A Day Late but not a Dollar Short for Teacher Appreciation Week

Yes, last week was Teacher Appreciation week, but by the time I figured that out, I had already written last week’s blog. So I’m making up for it this week.

I’ve written earlier about Mrs. Spangler, the second-grade teacher, whose collection of books in her classroom set me on the path to becoming a writer. I’ve also discussed Richard Guerra, my Latin teacher. I was a sophomore when a comment from him on the bottom of an essay changed my life. When he wrote “Research worthy of a college student” that was the first time anyone in my life had hinted that maybe Judy Busk was smart enough to go on to college.

Today I’ll be writing about Rachel Riggins, the woman who was my home room teacher for the four years I attended Bisbee High School. I’ve told this story before in a letter written to Mrs. Riggins’s granddaughter, Cindy Pearson Cole, but I don’t see any record of my posting it on the blog. If I did? So be it. Since it’s already rerun season on TV, why not on the blog? And because I’ve already written much of the story—which hasn’t changed over time—I may as well lift some of what I wrote there and use it again here.

As I said, Mrs. Riggins was my home room teacher at Bisbee High. She was a graduate of Mt. Holyoke which seemed incredibly exotic to my Arizona ears. She was a fairly young widow with a daughter who was just finishing high school as I was entering. Mrs. Riggins was a petite woman, five-four maybe, who always wore heels and hose in the classroom. Her silvery hair was pulled back from her forehead in a short and expertly permed cut. For me he most amazing thing about her appearance was her hands—they were always carefully manicured. Manicures weren’t part of life in the Busk household, and I found Mrs. Riggins’s weekly manicured hands to be totally fascinating. In dealing with students, she was soft-spoken and kind, even with the so-called troublemakers.

Homeroom back then was for taking attendance, listening to the announcements, and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. As a result, for the first two years of high school, I didn’t have that much personal interaction with her. It wasn’t until my junior year when I signed up for journalism that I had her as a teacher in an actual class. I loved it. Her lessons on how to write articles have stuck with me ever since. The first paragraph has to tell who, what, where, and when with no editorializing opinions included. (Oh, how I wish that was still being practiced by today’s crop of journalists!) But then again, English teachers no longer bother teaching about participles and gerunds to say nothing of pointing out the difference between the two! In case you need a reminder. A participle is a word ending in ing used as an adjective. A gerund is a word ending in ing used as a noun. But I digress.

For our senior year, my best friend, Pat McAdams Hall, and I were chosen to be co-editors of school newspaper, the Copper Chronicle. We assigned articles to “reporters” from the journalism class, we copy-edited what they brought in, we did the layout, and once the articles were typeset on the printing press at the offices of the Brewery Gulch Gazette, we doublechecked the galleys. We also co-wrote a monthly column. The most memorable one of those was published in November of that year when we wrote about a turkey being born. Yes, hatched would have been the correct terminology, but we were seventeen years old at the time and our knowledge of bird and bees was limited. This past year I noticed any number of TV and newspaper reporters mentioning turkeys being born. Presumably those are all college graduates. But I digress AGAIN!

While doing work on the newspaper, Pat and I came to spend a good deal of time with Rachel Riggins, both in school and out. She was the one member of the faculty with whom I felt a close bond. I realized years later that she was most likely the one who engineered my entry into Pima Hall, a small co-op dorm at the University of Arizona. It was essentially an honors dorm, although no one called it that at the time. It was a place for poor but smart girls from all over Arizona, and one of the requirements for admission was being referred to it by a former teacher. I stayed at Pima Hall for all four of my undergraduate years, and being among those smart, small-town girls made all the difference in my university experience. Thank you for that, Mrs. R.

After graduating from BHS, I often stopped by to visit Mrs. Riggins during Christmas and summer breaks. At one point, I believe while I was still attending the University of Arizona, she spent several weeks in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tucson having suffered a DVT—a deep vein thrombosis. While she was there, Pat and I made it a point to go visit her together. And when her daughter died unexpectedly at very young age, Mrs. Riggins was devastated. I’ve often wondered if her daughter had the same kind of blood clotting issue that had plagued her mother and maybe her father as well.

But the real point of this story dates from 1968, six years after I graduated from Bisbee High School. At the time I was teaching English at Tucson’s Pueblo High School which drew lots of tough students from the city’s southwest side. The first year, I was on the morning session teaching seniors who were only a few years younger than I was, and those kids ate me alive. For my second year, I asked to move to the afternoon session where I dealt with sophomores.

By Christmas of that year, one of my students in particular, a guy named Fernando Camacho, was driving me nuts. He was a long, lanky Hispanic kid with a huge chip on his shoulder. He would saunter into class at the last minute, go directly to the pencil sharpener, and spend an inordinate amount of time sharpening his pencil. He never did his homework. By Christmastime, it was coming up on the end of first semester, and he was the one kid I was going to give an F.

That year, when I went home to Bisbee for Christmas, I stopped by to see Mrs. Riggins. She asked me how my teaching was going, and I told her about Fernando, including the fact that I fully expected to fail him. What she said to me next went straight to my heart, and it’s still there. “If Fernando is failing as a student, then you are failing as a teacher. If he is sitting in your classroom for ninety minutes, four days a week, and not thinking about your class, he must be thinking about something. You need to find out what that is. When Christmas vacation is over, make an appointment to talk to him—not in class and not in your office. Pick some place that’s neutral. Then you need to find out what interests him and make what you teach focus on that.”

I was used to following Mrs. Riggins’s directions, so when school started again, I did exactly what she had suggested. I made an appointment to talk to Fernando and met with him out in the parking lot. During that appointment, I learned that he spent his weekends as the drummer in a local band. We went straight from the parking lot to the library where we found a biography of Gene Krupa. Not only did Fernando check the book out, he actually read it. That was the first time he ever read a book. It was also the time he turned in a book report, and he never gave me another moment’s trouble. I didn’t flunk Fernando first semester, and he passed second semester, too.

I left Pueblo at the end of that year and went out to the reservation to teach. Years later, my first husband came home after getting a haircut at a local barber college.

“Hey,” he told me. “I met one of your students from Pueblo today.”

“Not Fernando Camacho,” I said.

“How in the world did you know that?” he wanted to know.

It turned out that, during the haircut, my husband’s barber had asked, “Didn’t your wife used to teach at Pueblo?” When my husband said yes, his barber went on to explain. “She was the best teacher I ever had.” After his sophomore year, he had graduated from high school, served in the Navy, and was then on his way to becoming a barber.

In the early seventies, Mrs. Riggins left Bisbee and moved to Tucson where she served as a Student Teacher Advisor in the University of Arizona’s College of Education. In my opinion, they couldn’t have chosen a better candidate for that job.

So let’s all take a moment to appreciate Rachel Riggins. She made a huge difference in my life and also in Fernando Camacho’s, and she changed his life without ever encountering him in person.

And that’s what real teachers do—they make a difference.