Goodbye, Mrs. Foxworth
Remembering a New Orleans teacher
I research everything. Developmental milestones. Worst-case scenarios. Organic versus nonorganic foods. Charter schools versus public schools. Types of charter schools. Vaccinations, with and without thimerosal. When Ruby was freakishly good at puzzles at age 2: Signs of giftedness. When she was a bit slow to learn to read at age 5: Signs of dyslexia. Any time she’s sick: Signs of allergies? Signs of a cold? Signs of cancer?
And so of course when she was about to start pre-K, I had scoured the school’s website, way in advance, to figure out who she might get for her first year of Big Kid School. Everyone looked OK, but I really, really wanted her to get this one woman – I’ll call her Ms. L. – who just seemed so fantastic and young and fun. According to her bio, she was into yoga and vegetarian cooking, and I could just imagine her, full of verve and vigor, teaching the kids about the health benefits of tofu while doing a perfect downward dog.
Ruby didn’t get Ms. L. My friend’s daughter did, and I still remember feeling a little bit bitter and a little bit disappointed that my friend’s daughter got the fun teacher, and Ruby got Mrs. Foxworth, an older woman, widowed with two daughters and a grandson, who had a bio full of experience and awards but nothing so splashy as yoga. “It will be fine,” I told myself. “But still …”
After Meet the Teacher Night, I was even more skeptical. Mrs. Foxworth seemed nice, but she was so quiet. She read a book to all of the kids, and I could barely hear her. I felt certain my spirited daughter was going to run roughshod over this sweet, soft-spoken woman. I could hear Ms. L. from down the hall, talking excitedly to the kids and parents, and I just shook my head. “That was who Ruby should have gotten,” I thought. “That would have been a good match. This is just not going to work out.”
What an idiot I was. How shortsighted.
Ms. L. was a great teacher. She was young and full of energy, and every kid who had her for pre-K had a terrific experience.
But Mrs. Foxworth was magic. Without ever raising her voice, she had all the kids entirely under her spell. She was loving, nurturing, thoughtful – and entirely in control. The kids, all of them, worshipped her. As they got louder, she would get quieter, until they were all silent and gathered close to her, looking up and listening – a neat trick I have never managed to master. She had the easiest smile, the warmest eyes. In an age where there are schoolwide bans on hugging, Mrs. Foxworth never even hesitated to embrace a student who was crying or scared. (Incidentally, I remember when I was in grade school in the mid-1980s and a student at my elementary school fell and hit her head. All of the teachers were running around like crazy looking for gloves and trying to find the written protocol for dealing with this amount of blood in the age of AIDS, and my teacher, whom I loved, yelled out, “Dammit, all of you, this girl is bleeding, and I don’t care about the stupid protocol,” and he knelt down in her blood and stroked her hair and whispered to her. That was the kind of teacher Mrs. Foxworth was.)
When Ruby graduated from pre-K, she swore she would never love her kindergarten teacher the way she loved Mrs. Foxworth – but within a few weeks, Ms. Millet had texted me this:
“I will set the scene: Ruby helping me set up the special treat yesterday at snack time.
Ruby: Ms. Millet, you are the coolest teacher.
Me: Oh really? The coolest ever?
Ruby: Oh yes. Much cooler than any teacher I've ever had. Because you dress fancy, especially for Halloween, and you bake, aaannndd your centers help me learn more than last year. Last year I just played. But Ms. Foxworth is cool too, just in a different way. It's like mommies and daddies. I love them both the same, but for different reasons. They do different things for me, but I love them for that. So you are cooler right now, but she is too in her way.”
Even as she loved Ms. Millet, she never forgot Mrs. Foxworth. When I made cupcakes for Ruby’s birthday, she made sure there was an extra for Mrs. Foxworth, and she and I walked over and hand-delivered it. Same for valentines and Easter goodies. Each time Ruby walked in, Mrs. Foxworth’s face would light up – the way it lit up for every one of her “kids” – and she would go, “Ooohhh, there’s my Ruby!”
Every time she left, Ruby would say, “I love you, Mrs. Foxworth,” and Mrs. Foxworth would say, “I love my Ruby!”
“You’d better still be teaching for Georgia,” I would admonish her, and she would laugh and say, “I’m making no promises. I need to retire someday.”
This image is from a chain the students made about their memories and feelings about Mrs. Foxworth.
Everyone can see where this is going, of course. Mrs. Foxworth died this week, leaving behind a school – a whole city, in fact, as she taught for more than 20 years at both the old Morris Jeff and Live Oak elementary schools – in mourning but better for having known her.
I don’t really know what I believe about heaven, but I know there is no one who has earned a place there more than Mrs. Foxworth.
I always want to research. I want facts, statistics, numbers, data. Mrs. Foxworth didn’t need any of that. I’m not saying she was simple, far from it. She was an extremely smart woman – smart enough to know that research can only get you so far. I am sure she had read the studies about at-risk youth, about the importance of pre-kindergarten programs for social development, about socioeconomic blahblahblah. She knew all of that, but research, facts, and statistics were not what fueled her, not what kept her coming in to school early and staying late. She was motivated entirely by love, and the only data that mattered to her was what she could see with her own eyes as her students blossomed in her care.
Mrs. Foxworth, as I said, had taught at the old Morris Jeff before Katrina, before restructuring, before it became a slightly hippie-ish International Baccalaureate charter school. I could sometimes tell that she was a little bit amused at all of our collective neurotic parental energy, as it was so different than what she was used to, but she was just as patient with the parents as she was with the students.
And she was always willing to try new things, new methods of learning, even as she kept doing the same things she’d been doing for years, which was mostly just as simple as loving all of the kids, lighting up when she saw them, hugging them, remembering them. She truly modeled so many of the Morris Jeff values – “we try new things with courage”; “we speak and act in kind and peaceful ways”; “we take care of ourselves, each other, and our school” – but she didn’t do it because she was consciously trying to follow some kind of intellectual framework; she did it because it’s who she was.
There are many good people in this world, but Mrs. Foxworth was more than that. She was magic. She exuded calm, she broadcasted patience, she screamed love and acceptance – all without ever speaking much louder than a whisper.
For someone like me, who is loud and anxious and awkward and full of nervous energy, being in Mrs. Foxworth’s presence was incredibly soothing. For someone like Ruby, who has me for a mother, I can only imagine Mrs. Foxworth’s presence was a welcomed change of pace.
“She never corrected me,” Ruby said sadly when I told her the news. “She just loved me.”
My first reaction was, ironically, to correct her: “Of course she corrected you. She was your teacher. Correcting you was her job.”
But I didn’t say that. I took a page from Mrs. Foxworth and listened to the feelings instead of the words.
What Ruby meant was that she felt loved instead of judged, and that allowed her to learn and grow. I can’t believe I was ever so wrong-headed as to think that anything else was important or that any bell or whistle in a teacher’s biography could trump plain-and-simple love.
Mrs. Foxworth was down-to-earth and practical, but there is no doubt that she was magic, and the world is a little less special without her in it.
My heart goes out to her own daughters and her grandson, as well as to everyone else whose life she touched over the years. Losing Mrs. Foxworth leaves a huge hole. But the loss is nothing compared to her legacy.
She was Ruby’s teacher. But she taught me so much.