An Atypical Success

Melba Rae likely never traveled the world. It’s likely that she never rode in a limousine. She had none of the trappings of fame and there was probably very little fortune. She was just an ordinary woman that was extraordinary in her ordinary profession.

Most of us have many teachers in our life. As we think back on our years in school we can often recall the names and some of the characteristics but there are not many who have a lasting place in our hearts. Melba Rae was different. I am sure that she holds a lasting place in every one of her student’s hearts.

High School students tend to think that they are all grown up. Of course, they are almost grown up being in the last years of the schooling they started back when they were five. Most of the teachers from my high school treated us like that also. School was serious business. We were all preparing for life ahead, college admissions, job placements, preparing for where our lives would lead us when we no longer were told where to go and what to do with our days.


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Many seniors had most of the credits required to graduate. Many of the seniors were able to attend school for half a day during senior year. But almost every senior signed up to take Miss Barnett’s Advanced Composition class whether they needed it or not. It was not the class or the credit. It was being able to be in Miss Barnett’s class.

Many a student would walk around the halls with a gold star on their forehead after being in Miss Barnett’s class. Tootsie Pops were also handed our freely for active participation in class. She taught us to write and she taught us to think. She spoke to us as equals and reminded us that we were smart and ready to face the world. Every one of us was important to her, from the smartest valedictorian to the one who struggled to put a sentence together on paper. We were all equally loved and important to Miss Barnett.

She said that all of her students were her kids. Miss Barnett had never married. She claimed to be waiting for Efrem Zimbalist Jr. to come along and sweep her away. Most of us were too young to know who Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was but Miss Barnett explained to us that he was the most handsome man in the world. He was an actor of course. At a later time I saw an old photograph. He was very handsome, indeed!

When I think back on some the things I learned from Miss Barnett, there are not so many lasting things that I recall that have affected my writing. She hated the words “a lot” claiming that a “lot” was a piece of ground and the word had no place in compositions. I still find myself searching for an alternative if I am tempted to use the word. I never misspell the word “separate” because Miss Barnett always said, “se-PA-rate”. But the other things I cannot specifically recall, yet she undoubtedly affected my love for words and for writing.

At my senior classes commencement exercises we chose Miss Barnett to give the speech. It was the first time a teacher had ever been given such an honor. But it was well deserved and it showed our great respect for our favorite teacher. A couple of years later she passed away.

Miss Barnett may not have had many of the things that we all think of as success. She didn’t have the typical trappings. She did not have money. She did not live in a big house. She did not have the handsome husband (Efrem never did come!). But Miss Barnett found Joy and Happiness in her work. She gave it her all and it all came back to her. Every student loved her and respected her and learned from her.

Miss Melba Rae Barnett was an enormous success.


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