Marvelous Marva -- A Gold Star Educator in Oakland
In big, beautiful, sweeping strokes, she drew her name in curvaceous, curlicue calligraphy across the black board with a stump of white chalk. She turned and smiled, slowly surveying the faces of the 20 students in her experimental English class. I sat in the far left row of desks, with a view of the hallway, attempting to phonetically sound out the pronuciation of her name in my head before she formally introduced herself to the class. Focusing on her wonderous penmanship was my attempt at expending nervous energy.
It was the first day of the academic year at Havenscourt Junior High School. The campus pulsated with the excitement and restlessness of new and returning adolescents and adults. I was feeling shy, overwhelmed, lost – the changing of classes, six teachers and a home room, each with a new teacher and roughly 30 students, with names I was expected to remember; a counselor to meet; a hall locker to locate on the second floor; gym class and a second locker, with another combination to remember, and thoughts of changing into gym clothes and showering in front of strangers; 10 minutes between classes to find my locker and the next class, and use the girls room, if I had to, and still be on time.
It was too much to take in all at once, but there I sat in first period trying to fast forward my day, when Miss Devereaux introduced herself to the class and began taking roll. Many students she knew personally or had taught a brother, sister or cousin, so as she read off their names, she paused to ask about summer activities or make a brief comment and continued on. There was an ease and calm about this statuesque woman with the fluffy dark brown Afro, an openness and wittiness in her no-nonsense demeanor, that allowed me to relax in her presence.
I was one of six 7th graders in Miss Devereax’s combination 7th through 9th grade gifted English class. And I was feeling anxious sitting there that first day, questioning whether I would be academically and socially successful in this new learning environment. If the other students would like me? With whom I would eat lunch? While I loved learning, it was always awkward making new friends, particularly at a new school. The other kids always seemed to be paired up with neighborhood friends or former classmates, many from the adjoining elementary school, but I felt like an outsider again, having spent the sixth grade in a different school district than the one where I lived, to attend a gifted program at Maxwell Park Elementary School, in a class with a stern teacher, who barely tolerated me. Plus, I’d attended two other elementary schools just long enough to start feeling like I belonged before transferring to another.
At 5’8,” I was a rail, and a good head taller than many of my classmates. A worrier, I was anticipating the tauts and nick names: Stingbean. Pole. And the hair pulling, which started in kindergarten. My two, thick pigtails had caused me and numerous others undue grief.
When Miss Devereaux called my name, and I responded, she told me that she would be my guidance counselor. And guide me she did; through the awkwardness, insecurity, and bewilderment of my early teens.
During the first few weeks, I was a frequent visitor to her cubby hole of an office: Seeking her out for changes to my schedule, copies of my locker combinations, or returning one of the many field trip notices requiring a parent’s signature; but mostly, I spent my time there seeking solace when the new routine hadn’t become routine yet, and I needed a brief respite from the demands of junior high school. Her door was always open, and she welcomed me with a sincere smile and attentive ear, even if it meant I had to wait half the period to talk with one of the more popular adults on campus. She was a dedicated professional who gave freely of her time and many talents. She helped me organize my time and piqued my interest in a number of creative endeavors.
Over the course of the three years that Miss Devereaux taught and counseled me in junior high school, I came to rely on her wisdom and her friendship. Her passion for learning and literature and her nurturing ways, were infectious. She made learning fun – impromptu speeches, oral and written reports, debates, essays on current affairs, spelling tests, grammar drills, and literature – Hemingway, Steinbeck, Poe, Killens, Angelou, Baldwin, Morrison, to name a few. We devoured and discussed the classics, both Black and white. Studied Brooks, Brown, Dunbar, Bontemps and Baraka and wrote poetry.
When I ran for 8th grade class president, and won, Miss Devereaux was there the entire time rooting me on. Founder of the school’s Photography Club, she taught me how to use a camera and develop black and white photographs in the school darkroom.
As advisor of the school year book, Miss Devereaux, who’d majored in art in college, showed the enthusiastic staff how to produce an inexpensive, yet quality, artistic and journalistic record of our final year at Havenscourt.
On the day of our commencement, as I sat on stage in the school gymnasium waiting to address my classmates and the assembled guests, I caught glimpses of Miss Devereaux on the sidelines, beaming along side her colleagues, doing her part to make ours an extra special affair. To our surprise and glee, she had personally hand written each graduate’s name in her signature calligraphic script on their commencement certificate. As we strutted, swayed and swaggered across stage to the lush vocals of Nina Simon singing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” Miss Devereaux was there smiling and hugging, and handing out award and graduation certificates.
Throughout high school and college, I’d return regularly to Havenscourt to visit Miss Devereaux in her small office filled with photographs chronicling the passages and successes of former students and counselees. She had become a close family friend by then, getting to know both of my parents, especially my mother, who had been an active PTA member and field trip chaperone. We exchanged holiday and birthday cards and, and got together for lunches and teas.
When I got engaged, Miss Devereaux was one of the first people I called. When the engagement was broken, she consoled me. By then, I was introducing her as my godmother. She certainly had filled the role. In 1992, when I returned from a 10-month fellowship in Ghana, she let me crash at her house for a few nights, while I waited to move back into mine.
So, I was very concerned when, in the spring of 1995, after a weeklong illness, my father died, and Miss Devereaux didn’t return my call or come to the services. Weeks later, I learned that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer as my father lay dying in a hospital, and had surgery the week his cremains were buried.
She had just passed the five-year mark, when the cancer returned in 2000. She would undergo treatment, remain in remission for years and then another recurrence and she would go into remission again; the pattern repeating itself three more agonizing times. Marva, as I call her, now that I am much older than she was when she first taught me, is presently cancer free.
It’s been nearly four decades since I first entered her classroom, and I still have the small, candid snapshot of the two of us standing together after my 9th grade commencement ceremony. Marva has on a stylish, yet reserve, two-piece, short sleeve, gray knit top and matching skirt that falls at her knee. Her four-inch Afro is freshly cut, and compliments her regal bearing and pecan complexion. All legs, I’m confidently wearing a white, long sleeve, billowy blouse and a thigh high black A-line mini skirt with black wedge shoes, and loose hair that started off straight at the beginning of the day, but got bushier and bigger as the day grew long. We are both grinning.
. . . And thus began the lifelong friendship between me and Miss Marva Devereaux, a gold-star educator and sterling human being.
A freelance writer and award-winning photographer, curator Arabella Grayson combines her passion for writing and the arts in the touring exhibition “Two Hundred Years of Black Paper Dolls."