I actually started school in utero. Mother‘s college education was put on hold when she married Daddy on Sept. 21, 1941, and followed him to Chula Vista, Calif., to become a Rosie the Riveter while he patrolled the South Pacific in a U. S. Navy minesweeper during World War II.
Upon returning to Mama’s Place in 1945, Mama (my maternal grandmother) and Mother both knew it was high time for Little Melba to get that postponed college degree. Mother Melba thus began college, a process that took 10 years to complete.
Parks was in the middle of the Fourche River valley — lush, green pastures, fertile fields and Ouachita Mountain timber. Admittedly, however, it was a “fer piece” from college.
Neither Mama nor Mother was deterred by that fact.
Mother immediately enrolled in correspondence courses from the University of Arkansas, preparing lessons while helping Mama and Daddy perform daily farm chores. Sister Patsy was born in 1946, adding yet another wrinkle to college life.
Mother kept right on completing lessons, often at night while others were sleeping. Undoubtedly, I had absorbed valuable knowledge from her studies by the time I was born 17 1/2 months later. Mother and Daddy loved to retell how as an infant I would squall and kick when put to bed with Daddy, turning red-faced and demanding that Mother give college a rest and come to bed NOW!
Of course, Mother proudly assured me that the moment she lay beside me, slumber came before baby snubs could turn to coos.
In the summer of 1952, Daddy joined other men from Parks to work for General Motors in Kansas City. Although some families moved permanently to benefit from employment opportunities, Daddy knew he would return to Parks with seed money saved for purchasing his own land. Always pursuing that college degree, Mother seized this opportunity to take summer classes in Kansas City, taking Patsy and me along to share the dingy basement apartment a Parks friend had located. Patsy begrudgingly attended some kind of summer program for children at the university, while I begrudgingly stayed with Mrs. Ruth from Parks in her dingy upstairs apartment. Patsy remembers crying every day when Mother left her at school; I remember crying at the top of the stairs every day when Mother left me with Mrs. Ruth. Only when my 4-year old son, Clayton, cried pitifully when I left him at Mother’s Day Out did I fully appreciate Mother’s determination to finish college.
In the early 1950s, few Scott County teachers had completed degrees, rather teaching and completing coursework simultaneously. Returning home after our summer in Kansas City, Mother accepted her first teaching assignment at Boles, another small community southwest of Parks, and Patsy was one of the bright-eyed, eager pupils in her first-grade class. I was 4 and stayed at home with Mama, whose very life breath was teaching her grandchildren all they needed to know about living. I believed everything Mama told me and am amazed at how much I rely on her teachings every day.
Four months after my fifth birthday, I was declared ready for first grade. After teaching first and second grades at Boles one year, Mother moved up to third and fourth. Mrs. Cecil Elliott, “Miss Willa,” from Cedar Creek was my first-grade teacher. Our Miss Willa was a force to reckon with — a tiny lady with piercing blue eyes, a gray-haired knot pinned at the back of her neck, a quick wit and energy enough to fire a rocket. Miss Willa’s rhythm band was the pride of the community.
By the fall of 1954, Mother was nearing completion of coursework required for student teaching and graduation. Arkansas State Teachers College in Conway had accepted her credits earned from myriad sources during the past nine years, and at the end of the fall semester, she moved Patsy and me to a dingy upstairs apartment in Conway to complete student teaching. The college's program included an on-campus training school where students completed internships prior to graduation. This on-campus training school allowed Patsy and me to complete third and second grades while Mother completed her degree requirement.
In May 1955, Mama, Daddy, Patsy, and I watched Mother receive her college degree, each bursting with pride, assuredly owning our role in our accomplishment. As another school year begins, even five years after retiring from a 35-year teaching career, I go to school with Mother.
Thank you, Mrs. Owens, for your example of determination. It carries me daily.
Louise Owens Finney is a retired secondary teacher and part-time minister in Fort Smith. She can be reached at email@example.com.