Fifty years ago today, in the early-afternoon, in a fifth-grade classroom at Baseline Elementary School on Baseline Road in southern/southwestern Little Rock, the most memorable and influential teacher of my lifetime, Judy Hankins, mother of a couple of boys our age, one of whom would grow up to be Craig O’Neill, got called to the office. She was gone a long time.
She returned looking somber. But she had a certain moodiness, shall we say, which made her all the more interesting.
Once she wrote, “I’m a bona fide artist,” which she was, on the blackboard and told us she didn’t have to put up with the commotion we’d caused on our trip to the restroom. Another time she was instructing us in the meaning of “satisfied,” and said it was the way you feel after going to the bathroom. I laughed. She walked to my desk and glared at me and asked, “How dare you laugh at God?” One morning my dad dropped me off at school and my playmates were in the middle of a touch football play. I threw down my satchel and yelled for a pass, which I caught for a touchdown. Mrs. Hankins, seeing it all as the other team argued, told me I could count the touchdown if it was all right with my conscience. I said, “I don’t have a conscience.” She said, “Then you’re the devil.”
She also unilaterally changed my name from Johnny to John, irking my parents and giving me a more substantial byline.
So on this day, upon her return, she walked silently to the blackboard and wrote, “Thou shalt not kill,” then proceeded with teaching.
Our mom and dad told us what had happened when my 3rd-grade sister and I piled into the car at 3:30 p.m.
Years ago I wrote a column reflecting on this day and said that Mrs. Hankins was “mixing church and state, I guess.”
Days later I got a letter from her with a gold star attached that told me I was one of her more memorable and bright-eyed students and wondering how in the world one could teach without mixing church and state.