When I was in high school, I had the distinct honor of having a teacher who became the National Teacher of the Year in 1977. Her name was Myrra Lee. Mrs. Lee taught three incredible courses that forever changed my life.
In tenth grade, sophomore year, all students were required to take Social Living. This was the requisite class that taught basic sex education and all things related. When you are sixteen, it’s always interesting, if not embarrassing, to sit in class with your peers at that awkward age, talking about sex.
Mrs. Lee taught us other things like etiquette. I remember how in one class session, she recommended that the boys keep their shirts tucked in. Several of the boys, many of them athletes, joked about this for days, some asking me, “Is my shirt tucked in?” It was funny at the time. I wonder about the impact of that small tidbit today…obviously I still remember it. Sadly, one of the students who joked with me about it passed away years ago.
Something else that impacted me and caused me to make a smart decision was her description of sexual intercourse. As she described the “act” to a class full of 16 year olds who likely were still virgins (I know I was), she stated that the female cervix isn’t fully mature until about the age of 18. She stated that having sex at a young age could cause harm to the cervix.
Looking back, this was astounding and prophetic information, way ahead of its time in the mid-70s. The incidents of cervical cancer rose sharply not long after this. Her information caused me to wait until I was 19 to do the deed, and I never regretted the decision, even after having to tell two high school boyfriends, “NO!”
In our junior year, we had to take a required history class. In our high school we had several choices. I chose Mrs. Lee’s class called US History: Minorities. In this class we were exposed to the minority point of view throughout American History, including women’s. It was really a fascinating class and we wrote a lot of papers.
While studying the Black experience, Mrs. Lee divided up the classroom into four sections. Each section represented a particular area of a city, wealthy, middle class, urban downtown, or her words, “the ghetto.” I was in the ghetto group and we had to sit in her classroom office with the door shut, unable to hear the lecture each day and having to fend for ourselves. This illustrated how people living in a ghetto environment could not get information, could barely communicate, and were likely cut off from the rest of a city or community. It was powerful. Our group got frustrated and staged a riot and broke out of the office, further illustrating her points.
This was good, practical, historical POV that none of us had ever been exposed to in textbooks. No wonder she was Teacher of the Year.
In my senior year, I took her women’s studies class, another non-traditional class. I also became her 3rd period teaching assistant at her request. I can’t even recall the lessons I learned in women’s studies, but they affected me deeply into my adult life.
She was also a confidante. I was having boyfriend troubles and we sat down after her 3rd period class and simply asked me if I loved him. As soon as I hesitated, she gave me that knowing look she was famous for, and said, “There is your answer.” Not long after, I broke up with him and never looked back.
Mrs. Myrra Lee was given this prestigious award in March, 1977 by President Jimmy Carter as shown in the photo above.
Here are some quotes from Mrs. Lee on education and teaching:
“Teachers should never impose their value structures upon students but enable them to consciously develop their own.
If parents want their children to enjoy school they must take the responsibility of encouraging learning. Education is an active process. Schools are not the only agents that teach.
Students are people. Mutual respect makes for an ideal learning environment.
Teaching is the most rewarding profession. There is nothing as exciting as watching minds develop.”
Was I her teacher’s pet? I doubt it. She didn’t operate that way. I did get A’s in all of her classes and she respected me as I respected her. She is unforgettable and I am eternally grateful that I had the pleasure of having a nationally-recognized educator as my teacher. Now that I am an educator, I wish she knew how much her teaching influenced my life, personally and professionally.
“It is the function of teaching to open the minds of our students, to want to make them do something for themselves and the world.” Myrra Lee stated, as she accepted her award in 1977.
I’m told by fellow students on Facebook that she is still alive and kicking at 88 years old.