I admire people who have good posture, people who carry themselves erectly with no hint of slouching. For some folks it seems to come naturally. Others of us have to work at it. I’ve known a lot of people with excellent posture, but none more perfect than Mrs. Sadie Belle Collins.
Mrs. Collins was my English teacher at Unadilla High School for all four years, plus she taught me two years of Spanish. Her manner was stately but pleasant, despite being surrounded by students whose attention often fell short of her rigorous expectations. She had a low tolerance for misbehavior.
I heard a former student years ago make a comment that has stuck with me. He said, “I couldn’t stand that woman in the ninth grade, but I loved her by the twelfth.” He went on to explain that he never was one of her better students, but that he came to respect what she was trying to do. She gave her best to those in her classroom, and she demanded their best in return.
I began attending Valdosta State College in the fall of 1970. I was enrolled in English 101, an introductory course for freshman. I think it was the first day of class when Dr. Trent Busch gave us a surprise assignment. He put three topics on the board to choose from and told us to start writing. I picked the elementary sounding title of “My Life as a Frog.” I wrote a silly story about a frog landing in an ant bed then saving himself by jumping in a pond.
The next day during class Dr. Busch commented on our papers. Before he returned them he read mine aloud, telling the class that it was a good example of what he was looking for. My tale of the careless frog was not riveting by any means. But it was organized, and the grammar didn’t warrant significant red marks. His praise made me more appreciative of Mrs. Collins’ sometimes stern approach to teaching. The discipline she dispensed wasn’t as much for her benefit as for her students.
Her authority was not confined to the classroom. She would stand in the hall as classes changed and keep a watchful eye for improper conduct. I don’t remember her ever giving a paddling or sending anyone to the office. I’m sure she did both during her long career, but it must have been a rare thing. What I remember is her slight smile as she assertively told students what she expected of them.
Mrs. Collins was born in Texas. I don’t know if that played any role in her fluent command of Spanish, but she could roll her R’s with machine gun speed. I never got the hang of rolling my R’s nor of the Spanish language. There was a time when I could read it pretty well and maybe write something simple, but I had no aptitude for the spoken word.
She sought to inspire us by hosting Spanish Club suppers in her home. A jovial atmosphere complimented her yellow rice and enchiladas. It didn’t occur to me at the time that she was going well beyond what was required. She was trying to help us enjoy learning and to appreciate another culture.
After two years of Spanish the only bit of conversation I knew was what was printed inside the cover of our books. It was a short greeting, typical of two people who might meet on the street and inquire about each other. I saw that conversation in print so many times that it stuck with me.
It was more than ten years after my high school graduation before I saw Mrs. Collins again. I was working at Bank of Dooly in Vienna when she unexpectedly walked into our lobby.
“Como esta usted?” she asked. I quickly responded by following the script. “Muy bien, gracias. Y usted?” She gripped my hand firmly and showed a tender side that was no longer disguised by her classroom demeanor. “Neil,” she said, “You don’t know how much good it does a teacher’s heart to know that someone still remembers.” I hugged her for probably the first time ever, and I silently prayed, “God, please don’t let her ask me anything else in Spanish.”
Her posture was as perfect as anyone I’ve ever known. Looking back these many years later, I think I know why. I think she walked that way, because she thought that way. It’s not always so obvious, but at some point our walk will reflect our thoughts.
Mrs. Collins stood tall in the halls of Unadilla High. In the halls of my memory she stands with perfect posture.
SADIE BELLE HANKAMER COLLINS – December 12, 1908 – May 13, 1997. “Descanse en paz.”