Schools today are different from the way they were when I was growing up. They have something that we didn’t have: young teachers.
Although I don’t really know what they did with young teachers in Haywood County, N.C., when I was growing up, I always suspected that they were sent off somewhere to ripen for a while. But now I believe the teachers’ retirement system may be partly to blame because, you see, back then, teachers couldn’t retire. They just kept coming to school until, one day, they finally couldn’t come anymore.
That gave them a real advantage. Teachers were around long enough to have some important experiences--like having taught the principal, having taught most of the members of the school board, and being about 10 years beyond being afraid of the Supreme Court.
My favorite teacher was Miss Daisy Boyd. She was my teacher at Hazelwood School in the 42nd year of her teaching the 4th grade. She knew what she was doing. And during the year I had Miss Daisy, she taught the A’s through the Gr’s (Patricia Abernethy through Thomas Greene). There were no high groups, no low groups, no carefully balanced groups--just purely alphabetical ones.
We went into her room, an old room that had been there as long as she had, on the first day of school, and there she was in front of us, a little, worn-out-looking wisp of a woman, and we began to wonder if this tiny person could really handle 30 4th graders.
After we had all been seated at our desks, the door from the room into the hallway was still standing open, and out of the hall and into the room came a mouse, trying to find a safe place after living in an empty school all summer. Poor thing. It hadn’t invited all those little boys and girls to come to school, but there we were, and there it was, running around, trying to get away from us. The mouse came through Miss Daisy’s door and ran along the base of the blackboard behind her.
By the time that mouse got to the corner, Miss Daisy had turned and seen it, but she didn’t make a sound. She just eased open the top drawer of her desk, took out two brown paper towels, slipped over to the corner, squatted down, and surrounded that mouse, caught it in the paper towels, walked back over to the front of the room, held the mouse up, wrung its neck, and dropped it into the trash can. Do you think we were going to mess with her after that? No way.
My entire 4th grade year was built around Miss Daisy’s imaginary trip around the world--a trip that began with a train ride to New Orleans aboard the Southern Crescent. Then, we boarded a ship and sailed to South America.
While we went along every day in our imaginary travels, we made long lists of all of the places we passed through, all the things we saw, and all the people who had ever lived there who had ever done anything important, and throughout the whole year, we never figured out that we were making our own list of spelling words that were harder than the words in the spelling books.
And all year long, when we would figure out how far we had traveled each day, how much it took to buy train tickets and boat tickets, and, even later, how to change money from one country to another, she didn’t tell us we were working math problems that were more complicated than the ones in the math books.
Miss Daisy had never been out of Haywood County in her life, except for the four years she spent at Asheville Teachers College learning how to teach the 4th grade. But during all those years, she had ordered by mail thousands of picture postcards. It wasn’t possible for us to go anywhere, from the smallest little town in Mississippi to a temple garden in Japan, without Miss Daisy being able to dig through her boxes and finally come up with a ragged-edged postcard to show us what that place looked like.
On the third day of our voyage, a little boy named Lucious Moody Grassty came scooting through the door. He had a wool knit hat pulled way down over his ears, and he wouldn’t take it off. He went past his desk, stood right in the corner of the room, and wouldn’t come out. Miss Daisy came in, took one glance at him, and said, “Now, boys and girls, today is the day we cross the equator. And when we cross the equator for the first time, we have a big party for Neptune, King of the Deep.’'
She went into the coat room and began bringing out things the kids had left there at the end of school for 42 years. Old raincoats. Broken umbrellas. Old galoshes. She began dressing everybody for our big party for Neptune, King of the Deep. She pulled out the window shades to show us how they used the sails on the boats to catch rainwater and make bathtubs, and she told us how some of the sailors had their clothes run up the masts. Why, for this party, some of them even shaved their heads. And she pulled off Lucious’s wool knit hat, and his head was shaved. We were all jealous. How did he get picked to be the one?
It was a long time before I learned that, on the day before, when Lucious had gone home from school, his mother had found lice in his hair, shaved his head, and washed it with kerosene. But Miss Daisy, without pausing for a moment, had taken this little boy with a blistered head and transformed him into the hero of the crossing of the equator.
Within a few days, we had arrived in South America and begun our journey up the Amazon river. Miss Daisy said: “Now, children, the Amazon is the longest river in the Americas. There are butterflies there so big we could ride on them.’'
“But, Miss Daisy, what if you take the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and put them together? Wouldn’t that be the longest river? That should have been one river, anyway.’'
But Miss Daisy always answered: “No, no, no. That’s two rivers. Two names, two rivers. The Amazon is the longest river.’'
And it didn’t make any difference to me where we went from there-- down through South America, across to the tip of Africa, up the Congo, or down the Nile--the Amazon was always my favorite place, because my art project for the year was making a butterfly so big you could ride on it.
A few years before, my Uncle Frank had tried to invent a way to fly. He made a machine, something like a primitive hang glider, except it had a piano hinge down the middle so the wings could flap. He made a frame out of copper tubing and pieces of orange crate, glued about two million chicken feathers all over it, and put the harness from a pack frame on the bottom so you could strap it on your back. And he was ready to fly.
He got on top of the front porch and was going to take a short flight to a maple tree. He told us later a downdraft got him. Lucky for Uncle Frank, it didn’t kill him. Lucky for me, it didn’t tear up the wings.
On Friday afternoon, I begged my daddy until he took me to Uncle Frank’s house, and then I begged Uncle Frank until he hunted up those old wings and gave them to me. I took them back home and went to work. I took off the harness, built a body out of big mailing tubes with the ends stopped up, made antennae out of two coat hangers, painted those wings orange, green, purple, yellow, and red in swirls of patterns, and by Sunday afternoon I had a butterfly so big you could ride on it.
I knew I couldn’t ride the school bus on Monday morning with my butterfly, so my daddy took me to school. He drove his old Plymouth with the window rolled down, holding the butterfly outside and trying to go slow enough to keep it from blowing away.
He wasn’t in a very good mood by the time we got to school. But Miss Daisy loved my butterfly, and she took a big coat hanger, hooked it into the butterfly’s back, and hung it up over the middle of the room. For the rest of the year, it floated there over the top of all of us.
During the next several weeks, we traveled throughout the Mediterranean, across Eastern Europe, into Central Asia, China, and Japan, across the Pacific, and during the last two months of the year, we took a long imaginary train ride across North America, from Canada to Mexico. And finally, on the last day of May, there we were in Hazelwood School where we had been all the time.
The school year ended, and I soon finished grade school, then high school, and I began college. I was home one summer, working as a busboy at the Mount Valley Inn in Maggie Valley. And one afternoon, just before opening, I was outside sweeping off the front steps, getting ready for the first customers to arrive, when a big green Buick Roadmaster came roaring up. I knew who it was--there was only one of those cars in all of Haywood County. It was Meg Clayton, one of Miss Daisy’s sisters. She got out of the car and came around to the other side. The other door opened and out stepped Miss Bessie, another one of Miss Daisy’s sisters. Together, they opened the back door, took something out of the back seat, and started coming toward the restaurant. I ran down to meet them. As I got closer, I saw what they had. Between them, hanging on to their arms, they had what was left of Miss Daisy. She was just a tiny little woman, nothing but skin and bones--a wisp of a person, with her head drooped down, her toes barely touching the ground as they carried her along, bringing her out to supper.
Miss Bessie knew me and she spoke, and then she turned to Miss Daisy and said: “Look, Daisy, look! It’s one of your old boys. It’s one of your old boys, grown up.’' Miss Daisy raised her head and looked at me, but her eyes were white, colorless, and dead.
Her head dropped down and Miss Bessie said in a loud voice, “Daisy’s had a stroke.’'
I didn’t know what to say. “When did she have it?’'
“About six years ago, just after she retired.’' And they took her inside to feed her supper.
I passed by their table occasionally, trying not to look, trying to do what I had to do without watching. But finally I had to go to the table one last time to clear off their dishes and to see if they wanted dessert.
I rolled my cart up to their table and started slipping off the dishes, and all of a sudden, I could feel somebody looking at me. I looked up and it was Miss Daisy, her eyes as clear and as blue and as alive as they had ever been. And from way down inside of her came a tiny little voice. “The Amazon is the longest river. There are butterflies there so big we could ride on them.’'
Her eyes went blank and her head dropped down, and I went to the kitchen as fast as I could go. Mr. Gibson, the cook, was looking out the door, watching, and he kept muttering to himself, “Oh, isn’t it sad about poor Miss Daisy. Oh, isn’t it sad.’'
And I thought, no, it isn’t sad. I thought it was until a moment ago, but now, I know it’s not. For I’d remembered how, when we were in the 4th grade, we’d ask, “Miss Daisy, why do we have to learn all of this? Why?’'
And she always said, “Because--because one of these days you’re going to be able to go anywhere you want to go and you must know where you’re going.’'
No, it isn’t sad about Miss Daisy. I have seen that she is now in a world in which she can go anywhere she wants to go and she knows where she’s going. She can even ride the butterflies.
This story originally appeared as “Miss Daisy’’ in Homespun: Tales from America’s Favorite Storytellers, edited by Jimmy Neil Smith. Reprinted by permission of Crown Publishers Inc. Copyright 1988 by Jimmy Neil Smith.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The World Of Daisy Boyd