"A Teacher & 'Adopted Grandmother'"
story by Royall Bryan
"A Teacher & 'Adopted Grandmother'"
About the Writer
"A Teacher & 'Adopted Grandmother'"
The writer spent time in the past few months interviewing Debbie Hughson, who was an elementary school teacher of hers. Royall Bryan is a student at Christopher Newport University.
What A Small World
Debbie Hughson, a retired Portsmouth Public Schools (PPS) teacher, has never been one to sugarcoat anything. She sat tall in her seat at Starbucks when we met before Spring Break, hair swishing as she laughed or spoke. She had one leg crossed over the other, and her iced green tea lemonade sat on top of a pile of napkins to prevent the wood from staining. “It’s National Wine Day, but I’m waiting to drink until my cruise in two weeks,” she had said when we stood in the line to order our drinks. She’ll officially be a senior next January, and she can’t be more excited about it: “I’ll finally be able to get all the discounts!”
Debbie was my third-grade elementary school teacher, teaching in the very school system she had gone through, and our families quickly adopted each other. She and her husband have filled the void of the kind of involved grandparents that I hadn’t had the privilege of experiencing until meeting them. She attended my high school graduation, numerous band concerts, and birthdays. I spoke at her retirement ceremony at the end of my fifth grade year, giving away all her little tricks she did during her time teaching my class.
But there’s so much more to her story as a PPS school teacher than those two years I spent as her student. At least once a semester, Debbie came to visit my mom and I on a Saturday for lunch. She’d sit on our couch -- never with her back touching the cushions, though, because her mother used to smack her legs every time she did that growing up.
When I sat down to think about who I wanted to interview for this project, all those visits flashed in my mind. I knew Debbie -- I referred to her as my adopted grandmother to all my friends and family, she introduced me as one of her family to her old teaching colleagues, and she’s even written in her will that when she eventually passes I’m to receive the china her mother had passed down to her -- but I didn’t know her. I didn’t know how the things she had experienced as a teacher in a low-income, underperforming city school had shaped who she had become.
I am so thrilled to be able to bring her experiences as a PPS schoolteacher, in the very place she had grown up, to life here. They have helped shaped who she is as a person, and they have taught her so much about herself and the world around her.
Leaving a Paper Trail
“He called them ‘copious notes,’” Debbie said about the high school principal who would visit her classes, rolling her eyes a bit. “We called them something a lot more inappropriate.”
By the late '80s, Debbie had changed schools, from her original James Hurst Elementary, and was teaching at Lakeview Elementary, about a 10 minute distance between each location. There, she encountered her first real issue with the administration -- documentation.
“He would sit in on observations and constantly take notes -- it was like his pen never left the page.” She wouldn’t tell me the name of the principal she spoke about, mainly because she was still pretty sure that he was in an administrational position “downtown."
Her lesson plans that year were never more detailed, her classroom always under observation. “Everything had to be documented. There had to be plans and grades for each child, including what steps we were going to take to help the kids that weren’t doing so well. He wasn’t a spontaneous principal; he wanted everyone to know what they were doing and stick to the plan. He never accounted for the things that students might be going through at home or what we as teachers were dealing with.”
“I remember, one year, right before Winter Break I had decided not to do my lesson plans. Well, guess who informs me that Monday morning he was going to come observe my classroom the next day? So, I went home that night and didn’t go see a movie with my husband so that I could get those lesson plans done. The next morning, before the day started, he pops in and tells me that he decided he wasn’t going to come observe me anymore! So I looked at him and said, ‘Oh, no, sir, I stayed up all night making sure my lesson plans were going to be good enough, so I will see you in my classroom at eight a.m. after the morning announcements!’” She snickered then, pausing in her story. “Sure enough, right after the morning announcements, there was a knock on the door, and he slipped in, nodded at me, and sat in one of the tiny empty chairs for two hours, scribbling away on his legal pad. Oh, I was so peeved.”
“The seventies and eighties was this time of trying out new educational tactics and beliefs. I remember that they would instill a new idea each year because the kids weren’t ‘getting it.' How can they if you don’t give them time to adjust to the new policies you’re making us teach? SOLs had always been a thing; we just started getting less and less control over what we did in the classroom as the years went on. I don’t know why, but it just did. Then, of course, the kids felt like they weren’t being treated fairly, so behaviors got worse.” She paused again, briefly thinking. “I graduated from Portsmouth and went off to college and came back four years later as a teacher and everything was different. The kids had somehow gotten so much worse than when I was in school.”
The only concept that seemed to stick with her the most was reality therapy, a behavioral technique that focuses on positive comments to help with discipline. “I just remember you couldn’t say anything bad or negative to the kids about the things that they did or didn’t do. You always had to be positive with them. Of course you needed to be positive, but never telling them ‘no, that’s bad and here’s why’ opened up a lot of discipline problems.” When did they stop it? I asked, not remembering the technique when I was in school. “About a year later. It stuck with the kids, though. They really didn’t understand why or how anything worked; they were just kids.”
Debbie and her husband with me on my 13th birthday. Her first year teaching was the most eye-opening. “One time, for recess, we were playing baseball, and one of the kids threw a bat at another student. It hit her in the stomach.” At my slight laughter -- that was nothing compared to much of the things I had seen during my time as a student -- she chuckled as well. “It seems funny to you, because you’ve experienced these kinds of things before. But I hadn’t. I was newly married, and I was just a long-term sub. Probably the only thing that hasn’t changed in all the years teaching is how kids treat substitute teachers.” She paused again, reflecting and taking another sip of her tea. “I thought I was going to be the best teacher, changing the lives of these kids. I was lucky to get a job right out of college, but I never expected it to be the experience it was. I learned a lot.”
Kids & Soap
On her last day of her first year teaching, Debbie made a grave mistake: she let her kids help clean the classroom.
All teachers had to pack up their rooms, and the more hands helping, the better—or so Debbie thought. Since she had been a sub, there weren’t many things in the classroom to pack, so she figured that the students could help her clean it up a bit.
“I should have known better with all the stuff that had already happened that year. I left to go do something -- I can’t remember what -- and when I came back, the classroom was a mess. I had given them soap and water to clean off all the stuff they had written on the desks during the year, and they completely destroyed the room.” Her cheeks reddened a bit. “The entire classroom was covered in soap and water. I had to call the custodians, back then we had phones in the classrooms, you know, and we all had to wait out in the hall while they cleaned everything up. I was so embarrassed, and I vowed never to let my students help me on the last day again.”
But I remember being in her third grade classroom, helping her take tape off of posters and packing away books -- maybe we were just the exception to the rule.
A Day at the Beach
“Each year, we tried to take the kids on a field trip. Once, we took the kids to the aquarium. They were so bad -- they threw chairs and everything.”
After this, Debbie swore that she’d never take any students on any field trips ever again.
But a few years later, her class was better.
“I wasn’t teaching at James Hurst anymore, I was teaching at Lakeview -- and so Mary Lee” -- her teaching partner, and also my adopted Aunt -- “and I decided to take them to the Outer Banks for the day. These kids, all from pretty bad neighborhoods in Portsmouth, had never seen the beach before. Never. I remember getting there, and they were all amazed. They loved playing in the water and the sand. I just didn’t understand how these kids could live so close to the beach, an hour away, and never have been to it! I remember each summer Buzz Daddy” -- everyone’s nickname for Debbie’s father -- “would take Momma and I to Kill Devil Hills and Manteo and we’d spend a few weeks there and I guess I didn’t get that not everyone was able to go to the beach. Anyway, Mary Lee had this idea to take the kids up Jockey’s Ridge, and so we went, and they had so much fun climbing, and it was probably one of the best field trips of my life.”
Debbie considers the beach her second home -- it holds fond memories for her. Her primary home, which sits near the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, is filled with artwork depicting various beach scenes. The color palette of her walls varies in shades that you’d find on different days by the water, the carpet on the floor a crisp white, a reminder of the sand you’d find the farther South you travelled. For her students to have never experienced what she enjoyed growing up wasn’t something she had thought possible, and it was eye-opening to see their reactions there.
Debbie and her husband.
Ponce & Leon
When I originally prompted Debbie to tell me about one of the funniest stories she has from her time teaching, she automatically responded with: “Well, your group had the funniest moment, if I’m being honest.” And, while I’m sure that’s true, I wanted to hear more about the people I didn’t know from Debbie’s teaching life. There were so many students she’d taught, students I had never met before.
She chuckled then. “Have I ever told you about Ponce and Leon?
“Well, one year at Lakeview, we had a teacher on staff who was pregnant. This teacher, who was pretty young, had to explain to all of her students that she was going to have a kid. So, because my students ended up seeing her pregnant, too, Mary Lee and I had to try and explain it to the kids as well. When she found out she was carrying twins, a whole new thing started: what she was going to name them. Of course, we were teaching third grade at the time, and Mary Lee had just taught the unit on Ponce de Leon, the infamous Spanish conquistador. There were two students we had, both of whom we considered the class clowns of the group, and they came up to our desks one day giggling between themselves. Mary Lee asked them what they wanted, and one said, ‘We know what she can name her twins!’ We had no idea what they were going to say, but we knew it was going to be something funny. Suddenly they shouted, ‘Ponce and Leon!’” She started laughing more then, leaning in her seat more towards the painted mural beside her. “They were definitely upset when they found out that she didn’t, in fact, name her twins Ponce & Leon.”
When I was going to elementary school at Churchland Academy, there was a teacher there that I never met but knew about. Not many students liked her, and I have to say, if memory serves me right, she wasn’t the nicest looking woman. But Debbie never had anything negative to say about her, and since I hadn’t ever talked to her, I didn’t have an opinion about her when Debbie started talking about her—about Mrts. Whidbee's encounter with a "fake eyeball."
Now, a little tidbit about the way Debbie ran her classroom: she loves pranks. Her personal favorites to use in the classroom were the fart machine (strategically hidden where we couldn’t find it) and the fake eyeball. My own personal experience with the eyeball was pretty minimal; most of the time my friends would find it and I’d know to avoid the place it was hidden. However, I remember one time she had taped it to the girl’s bathroom mirror. It had been there for a while; a lot of the students had gone in and out of the bathroom with smiles on their faces, but they never said anything. One of the girls didn’t really get it, so she went to the bathroom and started screaming, running back out and exclaiming, “Mrs. Hughson, Mrs. Hughson, there’s someone’s eyeball taped onto the mirror!” (She was never very bright, and it was mean to laugh, but I did it anyways).
This, of course, was exactly what I thought of when Debbie started telling me her story about Mrs. Whidbee.
“Mary Lee and I had forgotten that we put the fake eyeball in the bathroom, so when Mrs. Whidbee went in to use the restroom one day, she screamed. Then, I think she figured it out, and when she came out she didn’t mention it to us. But, I’m sure she thought we were the weirdest people she’d ever met.”
When It’s Not Fun Anymore
They say that all good things must come to an end. And, for Debbie, it ended long before she actually retired. She loved teaching; it was just everything else she had a problem with.
“It was less about the kids and more about the numbers. I was fed up with administration and the kids weren’t getting better.” She pauses, laughing a bit. “I remember, with the last group of kids I taught, I left (fellow teacher) Mary Lee a box filled with some items, just like a gag gift, and I put my class photo on it with smiley-face stickers over the faces of the kids that had been problem children during the year.” As she spoke, she imitated pressing the stickers down on the photo, the force behind it showing that it was her one way she could express her agitation with her students and how they had made her feel during the whole year.
I remember her last group of kids; I was in fifth grade. They were definitely not the most well-behaved group, and I was amazed that she had gotten through the whole school year with them. But I especially remember her retirement ceremony -- I spoke at it. I don’t remember all of the words of my speech, but I do remember how everyone in the room laughed; there were students she had taught and teachers who had since retired and friends and family members and cake and gifts and balloons and it was the first time I really realized just how important of a person she had become to so many people.
Even though Debbie had problems with her students, even though it had gotten to be too much for her to handle, she still had a group of people who revered her for influencing them and thanked her for helping them become the people they had become. I remember how she sniffled slightly after my speech was done, deflecting it with a, “You just gave away all my secrets!” I remember she had to stand a little straighter and keep herself from tearing up -- and I remember that I was so sad I wasn’t going to be able to go visit her in the mornings before school started.
But I also remember that her retiring meant we’d have more time to spend together. I remember realizing that she’d be able to do the things she liked to do more. She could travel and go to the beach and visit with her son and volunteer at the library and so, so much more.
You Can Take the Teacher out of the Classroom,
but You Can’t Take the Classroom Out of the Teacher
Teachers end up coming to the realization that their students grow up and go on and do things—both good and bad. “I remember sitting here, on this couch, one night, watching the news. And, right there, was a mug shot of two students I had taught who were charged with shooting and killing another man right over here at a gas station on Victory Boulevard. They were both good kids when I’d taught them -- I never expected to see their names on the television!” Her eyes were wide as she spoke, her voice a little harsher. “I also remember one night hearing that the police had caught those people who were stealing the vases from the cemetery Momma and Daddy are buried in and seeing their photos and just going ‘Oh my goodness, I need to call Mary Lee!’ So I did, and she turned on the news, too, and we just couldn’t believe it. The thieves were a man and a woman. I had taught the girl and Mary Lee had taught the boy back at Lakeview, and we didn’t even know they were together!” ◊
Toni & Sharon
From putting a fake eyeball in the girl’s bathroom to spraying me and my classmates with water bottles during recess, Debbie Hughson has been a part of my life since she taught me for third grade over ten years ago. I have learned so much from this woman, who now spends her days by her second home (the beach), with her two cats, her husband, and the newest addition to her family: her grandson, Max. Take a look deeper into what it was like teaching in one of the poorest cities in Hampton Roads through the eyes of a retired Portsmouth Public Schools teacher who dedicated her life to making sure what we lacked in access we gained in spirit.