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.

32 thoughts on “A Day Late but not a Dollar Short for Teacher Appreciation Week

  1. I’m sitting here rocking my brand spanking new grandson thinking about all of the fabulous teachers in my life~thanks so much for this!

  2. The teacher who had the greatest influence on me was Alyce Chally who taught 8th grade government and English.

    She was a war bride. She married a local fellow who was in the Army and came back to his hometown after the war was over. She was a fish out of water and not too happy in my one-horse town in the middle of Iowa.

    One day she asked a boy to read a passage from the civics text. He stumbled over an unfamiliar word. She asked him what it meant and he said he didn’t know. She said to always look up an unfamiliar word when reading because how else can you understand what is written.

    I still do that. I even have a dictionary by my bed so I don’t have to get up in case I come across a new word while reading in bed.

    I never thanked her, but did tell her husband about it. He was a teacher, too, and happy to learn about it.

  3. What a wonderful, encouraging article! I had a teacher in 6th grade, Mrs. Personette, who had beautiful nails and lovely penmanship. From that point on, I never bit my nails and learned to write cursive so well I then took calligraphy classes from an elderly lady at a senior center and used that calligraphy for several years, until the computer world took over. My favorite opportunity came when a trucking company needed names written on ‘good driving’ certificates, and they paid me $1 each! One time they had 100 for me to do, and having 5 young children and being on the ‘poor’ side, what a blessing that was!
    I love every book you’ve written (checked out and read the newest one from the library as soon as they got it!), and look forward to whatever you publish, including this article. What a lovely way to start my Friday morning!
    I pray you have found Jesus as your savior so I will get to spend a lot of time with you in Heaven (several years from now!). Blessings, Linda O.

  4. Oh, Judy…thank you for this beautiful blog…it brings into focus your friend, Pat, and also brings me peace this morning when I really need it. I have been dealing with a broken garage door, a broken air conditioner (in the Tucson heat!) my husband’s recent surgery and not-so-good news from the cardiologist, and I needed this distraction to help me remember my very special 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Swegan. I was a recent transplant from New York City to Girard, Ohio. She saw that I was discombobulated by the transition and urged me to read – which established a life-long love for me. At the start of the school year, she posted a board with all of her students names. Each time we read a book, she’d post a star next to our names and told us we’d get a special treat at the end of the year for whoever read (and understood) the most books. I easily won and still have the treasure she gave me.
    She taught with her heart. After we moved back to New York, I would visit her several times over the years, She always welcomed me with a hug and asked what I was presently reading. She had a very cute son who I had my first crush on. I would have loved to have been her daughter-in-law! But I realized I had the best relationship with her – mentor and friend. Rest in well-deserved peace, Mrs. Swegan, and thank you for your faith in me!

  5. This lovely blog makes me want to cry and smile all at once. What a
    fantastic teacher Mrs. Riggins was! You had to have been truly thrilled to hear that wonderful compliment from Fernando years later. This blog reminds us all to be totally frank with advice to people when they ask for it as Mrs. Riggins did and then to always pass on a compliment at every chance, as Fernando did.

  6. What a wonderful teacher! She and you had a profound influence on that young man.

    Reminds me of Guy Doud, 1976 teacher of the year, who learned to find out what was going on in the lives of his students that made it hard for them to focus on school.

    Also, I’m happy to finally know the meaning of participles and gerunds. I may have had it (we actually diagrammed sentences in country school), but if so, I’d long since forgotten.

  7. What a great story. My favorite teacher and the only one I truly remember was my high school French teacher Mme Bloch. I have thought about her thru the years and wish I had returned to see her and let her know how much I enjoyed her classes. I was not her top student but I know she liked me as a person and without showing any favoritism. Mme Bloch, a tough but fair and good teacher.

  8. It’s too bad teacher today aren’t like that. They don’t know how to teach. I also had some really great teachers in my younger years. They cared. Now they don’t even teach the true facts.

  9. Any student would be lucky to have you or mrs R for a teacher. I was fortunate to have several wonderful teachers growing up in so cal. By the way I was raised across the street from the Brentwood Country Club.

  10. I, too, remember several teachers of my student years in Milwaukee, WI. Ms Ferguson introduced me to Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels in 5th grade & made me a lifelong foreign traveler. I cried sitting in front of the Sphinx & Pyramids, realizing a lifelong dream first suggested by Mr Halliburton. I was also an editor of my high school newspaper & used my writing & editing skills to great advantage during my working career in IT. Ms Jance, keep up the good work — you make my week w/ your BLOGS!

  11. What a great story Judy. You have such a fantastic memory. This was so heartwarming. I was a teacher too for 40 years and appreciate so much all the lovely letters with beautiful sentiments written to me by my former students over the years. I was just cleaning out my files recently and rereading some of them. Making a difference is certainly why we teachers do this job.

  12. Bravo for Mrs. Riggins! She sounds like a Math teacher I had in high school. Mr. Schultz was a math teacher who was also the golf coach. He was tough when he had to be but bent over backwards to help whoever asked.
    Others are right – we need more of these type of teachers.

  13. As a retired teacher, I really appreciate your blog this week. However, you weren’t going to give the student an F–that’s what he was going to earn. I had students who would thank me for their grade. I always told them that I didn’t “give” them their grade–they earned it. So glad he passed.

  14. I had Mrs. Riggins for my Senior year at BHS. She was a very kind and caring teacher. The only problem was that was the year she had the DVT, so she missed about quarter of the year. We had a substitute over the time Mrs. Riggins was gone.

    As a retired teacher, I really appreciated this blog. I still have and cherish some of the notes of appreciation that I received while teaching.

    We really had some very good teachers in Bisbee. My favorites at Greenway were: Mrs. Gilbert, Mrs.Watkins, Mr. Norton, and Mr.Jackson. At BHS it was: Mr. Smith, Miss Shreve, Mr. Bill Dunn, and Mr.Turner. Most of the others were really quality people. I was fortunate to grow up in Bisbee in the era I did.

  15. What an inspirational blog! It brought back memories of the many great teachers that gave off their time and love to their students. The two I remember best, of the many, were Ms. Wakeland my English teacher for my sophomore, junior, and senior years, and Mr. Lindsey my chemistry and physics teacher. They poured everything they had into this farm boy. I would visit with them many years later when I went back to south Texas and let them know that my career in the science field which took me all over the US and world was due to their love and devotion to their students. I visited with Ms. Wakeland in an assisted living facility shortly before her death and Mr. Lindsey as well. What great memories of great teachers!

  16. I remember both Lucy Spangler and Rachel Riggins. Lucy was my 3rd grade teacher. I did not have Mrs. Riggins. I typed the BHS school newspaper for Miss Nelson, the biology teacher. I always find it refreshing when you bring up people from Bisbee. I know I graduated years before you, but I still enjoy your articles and books.

  17. “Who, what, when, where….” Also the key to successful interrogation of witnesses in depositions and trials.

  18. I have a judgmental streak and somehow this column brought up both the good and the not-so-good teacher memories. I remember the stark contrast between the AP History teacher who encouraged us to explore primary sources and had contagious enthusiasm for her subject, versus her contemporary (somebody knew these two women were the same age) in AP English, who thought reading to us directly from the teacher’s manual “Students are to be encouraged to….” would actually encourage us. The first teacher was universally beloved and we mourned when she retired; the second was the laughing stock of the school who unfortunately didn’t retire as promptly.

    That said, school was generally my haven and I loved most of my teachers. Kudos to all the ones who helped steer me through my early life!

    I did chuckle when you called your teacher “petite” and then estimated her height at 5’4″ (my current height), which was AVERAGE height for a woman in that era. My perspective on the subject is a little different, though I do find it necessary to purchase “petite” slacks these days, even though I have only shrunk one inch since my teenage years. They seem to be making the middle sizes a bit longer these days.

  19. As a retired teacher, I thoroughly appreciated your Teacher Appreciation blog.

    My best teacher was my sixth grade teacher. It was 1943. She was a 25 year old first year teacher and a newly married to her soldier husband, soon to be sent overseas. We were a class of 40 kids. Most of our parents were in the military or were war workers. Many were newly moved from their hometown.. It was a stressful time for everyone … especially those in Southern California.
    Mrs. Gilmore blended us into our own little family …. we were all in this together and we would win the war together. She even went to the Saturday movies with us. She was one of the gang. Gilly’s Gang.

    But she let us know that she was the teacher. It was her responsibility to see that we were fully prepared to Jr. High. If we fail, it would mean that she failed to do her job. We kept in touch. I had a 50th Reunion party for Gilly’s Gang in 1993.

    Mrs G. passed away short of her 100th birthday. 7/17/17 – 5/17/2017. RIP.

  20. So many people tend to forget there are good teachers out there! Parents and Government are the problems the teachers encounter daily! I had a teacher back when I was growing up. I believe I was a Junior. I hated history because it didn’t pertain to much to the U.S. but the way old history. But imagine if you will, a white haired lady, dress and hose, climbing on a chair, pretending to be the king of England while talking to the priest on the ground. I will never forget it, have never forgotten her and now I do genealogy! The best history of all!

  21. Great story/history. In Junior High in the Shoreline area of Seattle, my English teacher, Mrs. Kilbane, pulled me aside and said she would not accept any more book reports on horses, as I needed to read about other subjects, too. At first I was put out because horses were my total life focus. However, I later realized that she did me a great favor by leading me into a wider range of kowledge and subjects. My mother was an avid reader as well; she loved mysteries. She would have loved your books, for sure, as I do!!

  22. This brings back memories of my grade 11 social studies teacher in the residential school where I first learned to love school. She was from Washington State, and the curriculum contained a unit on Greek history. Joyce Carrell and another teacher took a couple of carloads of us to some valley where we acted out that Greek battle that started the “marathon.” Because in those days I could run like the wind, I got to be Pheidippides, and carry the news (of victory? it was so long ago now that I can’t remember), and then drop dead (not literally!!!). Joyce was Pericles–he of the “silver tongue.” I don’t remember much of my social studies courses, but that outing has been a fond memory of my favourite teacher ever since. I hope that I am even half the teacher to my music students that you and Mrs. Riggins were to your classroom students.

  23. One of your BEST blogs!!
    As a retired School Psychologist, I am really impressed by the advice Mrs. Riggins
    gave you- She had an understanding of kids that very much applies to Counseling, as well as to Education-
    I am also impressed by the fact that your public High School had a Journalism class-
    I attended a supposedly excellent school for girls, but we had nothing as exciting as such a subject-
    I did have a wonderful experience with one of my teachers- Although most of our teachers (Many of them single, middle-aged women) were benevolent, one in particular became very important to me- I was a disaster in French, which was taught by dictating sentences for us to write down- The “Dictee-” ( Pronounced Diktay)
    As a result, I had private tutoring with Madame Edith Arndt for four years- My written French did not improve, but Mme Arndt became something of a mother figure for me, which I needed- In 9th grade I was friends with a girl who had spent most of her life in Paris, and I learned to speak French from her- I have to hear and speak a foreign language- Just writing it does not work for me-
    After that I would visit Madame Arndt at her apartment, and would do that even after I was in college-We usually spoke in French, something I loved to do-
    Once or twice I told her how my mother screamed and yelled all the time, how angry she was in general- Mme Arndt responded, “Yes, but you have the power too-”
    Hearing that immediately gave me a sense of hope and put a spring in my step-
    Our experiences in School are just as important as those at home in some ways-
    God Bless Mrs. Riggins!

    • I had Meningitis as a first grader in 1951. among other things I permanently lost all hearing in one ear and all sense balance. I only retained about 25% in my other ear. I was sent to a school that had classes for the deaf to learn lip reading. After an all deaf second grade I was mainstreamed for 3 more years. every day I would go to Mrs. Meyers’ classroom where she would read me a story out of Readers Digest. Then she would ask me several questions about the article. It was done at a whisper level voice. Sign language was forbidden as the contemporary view was that everyone could read lips. after discovering the difference between kinetic and non-kinetic learners sign language was accepted.

  24. I loo forward to your blog and thought I had missed it.As a wife of an altheimers husband I have very few bright moments, but your blog is definitely a hi light

  25. Your share this past week had me in tears. Thank you sooooo much for what a wonderful teacher you had with Mrs Riggins. I would like to share your amazing message with our biweekly writing group. We meet every other Tuesday, and have been since 2014…and which we did online throughout Covid. (And still do as we have members in three different states) …Are there rules for what I can and cannot share with my writing group from your emails?
    I was particularly taken with the story with Fernando. What wonderful advice you got from her on how to handle Fernando..I was in a high school with a wonderful teacher, Miss Dresser, who taught English and drama…she made my life wonderful..and then my grandmere who wanted to turn me into a lady, moved me to a boarding school which made my writing years there pretty awful.(Still, I got some great stories about those awful years.)
    Fortunately, I finally got some good experiences in Barnard, but none would come close to your story about Mrs Riggins. I love how she enriched your senior year and got you into college.
    The odd thing for me is that once I moved from DC, I settled into Tucson, and enrolled into some great University of Arizona writing groups. I had one teacher who enriched my life of poetry and short stories greatly…I even got a couple of articles written and accepted into a True Confessions magazine…this teacher was then asked to leave the University, so we set up in her house. Evidently your stories about the University writing support still ran true then… I also met you in Tucson and started reading everything you have ever written and got to meet you on a couple of your face to face meetings while I was there in Tucson.
    I now live in SLC, Utah. Thank heavens for one of our group leaders (Debbie Dietrich). She is a retired English teacher so we get on a biweekly basis really helpful tricks. Also for me, .she is a very dear friend who got me through brain cancer. Since she lives in Colorado, being online with her still helps us all on a biweekly basis or more often on private FAceTimes.
    Thank heavens for Mrs Riggins…without her, we would not have had your writing, and your stories, and your wonderful shares especially during Covid!…thank you so much for your wonderful share this past week!

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