Education Opinion

Miss Baldwin Was a Teacher...

By Donald Warren — May 09, 2001 10 min read
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Miss Baldwin was one of the best known and beloved teachers in the Beaumont school system. There will always be more to her story than can be measured or remembered.

Gertrude Baldwin’s death on June 19, 1946, earned front-page coverage in the Beaumont, Texas, evening newspaper. It was an unusual tribute. She had not belonged to new or old money in this oil and refinery town, had never been elected to civic leadership, and had rarely seen her name in print. But as the Beaumont Journal reported that day, Miss Baldwin was special, “one of the best known and beloved teachers” in the city school system and “a guiding spirit” within Beaumont’s growing Mexican community.

One could say she got off on the wrong foot early in her career. Beaumont teachers who remained in the profession stayed put in an originally assigned grade level, or they moved on to administration. A select few advanced to the faculty of nearby Lamar Junior College, which offered teacher-preparation programs. Miss Baldwin moved in the opposite direction. After completing a B.A. with a Spanish major at Mary Hardin-Baylor College in 1923, she took a position at the high school in Port Arthur, a smaller town just down the road from Beaumont toward the Gulf of Mexico. She had attended high school in Beaumont, and her family still lived there. In 1927, her father died, and as the unmarried daughter, she moved back home to live with her mother. Among the vacant teaching positions available to her was one in a 1st grade classroom of Fletcher School. Since she held a permanent high school license, Texas’ most prestigious teaching credential, the opportunity offered a mixed blessing at best, but she took it. The downward shift forced her to complete courses in elementary school methods and to accept a reduction in salary.

The Fletcher School principal might well have entertained reservations about her new teacher. This tall, slender woman reportedly held herself in reserve, yet spoke bluntly, and lacked professional experience below the secondary level. Education set her further apart from colleagues. As elementary teachers, they needed just two years of postsecondary preparation, a bar typically passed at Lamar Junior College. They tended to start young, many as teenagers. Miss Baldwin was 33 years old. More worrisome, in 1927 (and for several years thereafter) she alone among Beaumont’s approximately 80 elementary school teachers held a bachelor’s degree.

On the positive side, she had a language skill Fletcher School needed. Here, mixed with children primarily from lower-middle-class and laboring families, was the largest concentration of Mexican youngsters to be found in any of the city’s seven elementary schools. People of Latin American origins, mostly Mexican, constituted less than 2 percent of Beaumont’s 57,000 residents in the late 1920s, but the vast majority lived inside Fletcher’s attendance boundaries. (In 2001, Latinos account for more than half of Fletcher’s student body.)

Martha Straughan also started teaching at Fletcher in 1927. Nineteen years old at the time and fresh from preparatory studies at the junior college, she remembers Miss Baldwin clearly. They were not friends, but like the other teachers, she knew about the unusual assignment Miss Baldwin had been given.

Initially, all the 1st grade Mexican children were grouped as a separate class under her direction. In subsequent grades, Fletcher students were sorted by ability, one class for the brightest and the other for lesser lights. During Mrs. Straughan’s five years at Fletcher, she and the other teachers noticed an unexpected change in the composition of these ability groups. By the 3rd grade, sometimes by the 2nd, Mexican children began showing up in the classrooms for top-rated students. Thus started Miss Baldwin’s reputation. “We all recognized,” Mrs. Straughan recalls, “that she was an exceptional teacher. Her students learned, and she did extra things. Like the rest of us, she visited the children’s homes, but she stayed longer and took special interest in the Mexican families.”

To students, Miss Baldwin was the master of all subjects. She taught them to read, recognize numbers, spell and add a little, print, draw, sing, study nature, and play percussion instruments. She used the approved “Dick and Jane” reading primers, augmented by word- and letter- pronunciation cards she flashed for recitations. Groups of five or so children, each labeled with the name of a bird, sat at assigned tables. The students knew what “bluebirds” meant, as over against “sparrows,” and those in the favored cluster relished their status.

They tended to pay attention. Miss Baldwin insisted on not just the appearance of order but the real thing. Squirming, daydreaming, whispering, especially, could earn exile to the hallway. Miss Baldwin was an equal-opportunity disciplinarian. Girls and boys alike could end up cooling their heels out in public, with the horrifying prospect of facing the principal on one of her walks around the building.

To students, Miss Baldwin was the master of all subjects. In short, she was all business but not always stern.

In short, she was all business but not always stern. Take the incident with the boy who drew a brown tree. The art supervisor, who paid monthly visits to Miss Baldwin’s class, had asked each student to draw a tree using crayons. The boy produced his single-colored specimen in different shades for the trunk, leaves, and surrounding grass. Irate, the supervisor recognized mischief and said so in front of everyone. Later, Miss Baldwin took the boy aside, laying out an array of crayons. She wanted him to identify the colors. As he faltered, she gave the confusing ones names: pink, purple, red, and green. Far too loudly for the boy’s comfort, she then announced he was colorblind, which meant he could see things most others had to miss. The attention brought him new friends, several of whom claimed on the spot to be colorblind, including two girls. They formed a club.

Some months afterwards, the art supervisor organized a demonstration of student drawing to be held in the lobby of Beaumont’s main hotel. Each teacher in every elementary school was to select a student who would spend a Saturday morning creating a crayon picture as visitors watched. Miss Baldwin picked the colorblind boy. On the appointed day, he produced a drawing of a Mexican boy in a sombrero, pulling a donkey. Watching his progress, Miss Baldwin asked at the end what title he wanted for his picture. When he hesitated, she observed that “green boy with pink burro” would be about right. Only later did it occur to him that Miss Baldwin had a sense of humor.

His fascination with Mexicans and Mexico, and that of her other students over the years, came via the usual route of personal experience. Abandoning the practice of segregating Mexican 1st graders, Fletcher began forming classes without regard to ethnicity during the 1930s. Name-calling on the playground had sparked trouble. A specific cause was the tendency of non-Mexican children to refer to themselves as white. The distinction provoked their Mexican schoolmates, whose parents invested considerable energy in asserting their racial status. Much was at stake: the stores and movie houses they frequented, where they sat on city buses, whether the telephone directory attached a parenthetical “c” after their names, and which schools their children attended.

Miss Baldwin handled ethnic conflicts in her room openly. (The following exchange relies necessarily on fictitious names and old memories.) One day during a reading session, Paul wondered aloud what he should call Jessie, since he—Paul— was white and Jessie was not. As the room grew uncommonly quiet, Miss Baldwin noted that Paul was not white. He was Paul Childers, and Jessie was Jesus Torres. She had the boys stand before the class, introduce themselves to each other and shake hands. Then she sat them side by side with instructions to read to each other. They complied but added an innovation. At the end of each turn, they repeated the introductions, complete with handshakes. She let the show continue, finally calling a halt when their giggles proved contagious.

She inserted wrinkles of her own to language instruction. Many of the Mexican children lacked a command of basic English, and their families often used Spanish at home. After Fletcher organized integrated 1st grade classrooms, Miss Baldwin devised plans to address obvious language needs. Every morning before school opened, she met for an hour with all 1st grade Mexican students, not merely her own, to tutor them.

In the early fall, the non-Mexican children tended to view these sessions as punishment and congratulated themselves on having escaped it. Later they would become curious about what was really going on and, usually in October, frankly jealous of the attention Miss Baldwin was giving to their classmates. The response apparently triggered stage two of her plan: the introduction of Spanish-language lessons during the regular school day. Much to the delight of the Mexican children, instruction remained at an elementary level, far below their own abilities, as their English-speaking classmates struggled with strange pronunciations and words. Miss Baldwin used them to help with the lessons and to demonstrate Spanish conversations for their saucer-eyed friends.

How many teachers have had careers like hers that left such impermanent traces?

Little evidence can be found that anyone in authority, beyond Fletcher’s principal and faculty, knew about this bit of curriculum enrichment. Note that it occurred in a school most Beaumonters would have said was on the wrong side of town. Unfortunately, the effort began and ended with Miss Baldwin’s 1st grade classes. No continuation of Spanish instruction occurred in the subsequent grades until, after 15 years, she moved up to the 5th grade as Fletcher’s sole specialist teacher of Spanish and science.

Like all teachers in Beaumont, she underwent annual performance evaluations. Based on class observations, principals and supervisors graded faculty members on cooperation, preparation, organizational ability, initiative and energy, quality of work, and force of personality. Miss Baldwin received high marks over the years, with notable exceptions. She did not routinely accept “corrective suggestions,” and in some years was viewed as less than prompt in following “instructions.” If she harbored an independent streak, principals and supervisors thought they knew why. They traced the problems to her preparation, which they judged to be deficient for elementary school teaching.

In addition to her school work, Miss Baldwin taught a women’s Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church for over eight years, and for an even longer period devoted herself to the church’s Mexican Mission. The mission’s origins have become clouded, but by 1933 the church had appointed a Spanish-speaking pastor to lead it. Although the primary aim was evangelism, not social welfare, the latter as much as the former drew Miss Baldwin’s involvement.

Long active in the mission, Lewis Lowry became its bilingual pastor in 1940, setting the stage for the formation of Templo Bautista, a separate Baptist congregation that continues in 2001. He describes Gertrude Baldwin’s contributions as tireless and selfless. She spent evenings and Saturdays in the Mexican neighborhood, teaching English to young and old alike, translating documents and forms, helping adults find jobs, and delivering food and clothing where needed. The children called her “Miss Gertrude,” Pastor Lowry remembers, a familiarity her non-Mexican students at Fletcher would have never dared. Most of them, and their parents, knew nothing about her extracurricular activities.

Among Miss Baldwin’s achievements were the extraordinary results of students being elevated in quite specific ways.

Across two decades, Gertrude Baldwin’s reputation as a teacher gained momentum, but that was long ago. The reasons for it, her life’s work, now lie obscured in unconsulted district records and fading memories. Her immediate family members are all gone. No photographs of her can be located. She produced no diary or memoirs. Her name does not appear in a recently published history of the First Baptist Church.

How many teachers have had careers like hers that left such impermanent traces? Never fully recoverable, their achievements mainly held local interest. Yet among them were the literally extraordinary results of students being elevated in quite specific ways, if only in their own times. With a hole at its core, this history requires an honest admission. There will always be more to a Miss Baldwin’s story than can be measured or remembered.

The author thanks the citizens of Beaumont, Texas, particularly John and Jeannette Kuhlman, for their research and assistance, and makes this acknowledgment: He was the colorblind boy.

Donald Warren teaches the history of education at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., where he was the dean of the school of education from 1990 to 2000.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Miss Baldwin Was a Teacher...


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