Mrs. Bethea did not tolerate foolishness, yet she liked to have fun. First grade was not only for learning to read but also for learning how to love school—tasks that might seem mutually exclusive. One day, a kid brought in a pair of rearview mirror "spy glasses" he won in a box of Honeycomb cereal. They let you see what was going on behind you, so you could spy on your friends! Most teachers would have immediately taken those glasses and put them in a drawer until it was time to go home (or forever, maybe). Mrs. Bethea just asked if she could hold them. She put them on, turned her back to us and exclaimed with delight, "Oh my goodness, I see Timmy, and Vivian and Alicia! You all look so wonderful!" She quietly placed the contraband glasses in her pocket and resumed our lesson.
I entered Mrs. Bethea's class at Raleigh's Fred A. Olds Elementary in the fall of 1973, the same year voters overwhelmingly expressed their disapproval for merging the Raleigh City (traditionally African-American) and Wake County (traditionally white) school systems. The General Assembly forced that merger in 1976. As the daughter of a retired Wake County teacher, I understand the frustrations, distractions and lack of respect many teachers face under even the best of circumstances. To rise to excellence in the face of the acrid debate and tensions that led the General Assembly to act in 1976 is nothing short of admirable. For Mrs. Bethea, herself African-American, serving as a model of patience, courtesy and strength for a class of mostly white kids remains beyond merely admirable.
As the antics of the Wake County School Board made national headlines last year, I often thought about my time at Fred Olds. I considered it especially when I learned of Mrs. Bethea's passing at the end of last year, and now, again, as I helped get my daughter ready for her first day of fourth grade. To the students in my first-grade class, Grace Bethea embodied every aspect of her first name. She was brilliant and caring, resolute and tough as nails, expecting each of us to do our best and redirecting us when we didn't.
We didn't have year-round schools in 1973, and August was the time that everyone's summer reached a bittersweet end. Many kids, like my own, recently enjoyed their last days of freedom, while many teachers quietly and diligently prepared their classrooms and lesson plans. Some of those teachers will be as memorable as Mrs. Bethea, and they'll spark life-changing learning in their students. In the face of limited budgets and political posturing, even Mrs. Bethea would still have her classroom ready to welcome a new crop of students—ready for another school year, ready to make a difference no matter what else swirls around them.