There is a sentimental reminiscence that comes with May. May is a time of transition. The school year ends. Children graduate from kindergarten, high school, and college. There is a finality in the air, a sense of closure and change.
On Thursday, May 18, 2023, in the Westwood Auditorium in Camilla, GA, students, staff, faculty, friends, and family gathered to honor Mrs. Grace Hatcher Adkins for both her 95th birthday and 75 years of teaching. Earlier this year, Mrs. Adkins decided that this would be her last year of teaching, but doesn’t like the word “retirement” because she considers herself to be, “a lifelong learner.”
At this point in her career, Mrs. Adkins has been awarded too many accolades to count. She’s had double-handfuls of articles written about her and the motivation behind her creation of the Westwood Learning Lab. It was only five years ago, on her 90th birthday, Grace Hatcher Adkins Day was declared by both the US Congress and the Georgia State House.
This time, though, the reception and laurels feel different.
For those of us who sometimes wonder about our place and purpose in the world, Mrs. Adkins’ life and career is a hopeful reminder that those characteristics that are so often deemed cliche are really, truly, important. To lead a life of sacrifice, service, and love has a ripple effect that cannot be underestimated.
Mrs. Adkins never quite left her hometown, choosing to marry and raise three children not far from where she was born in Doerun, GA. But because she stayed the course in her teaching career, her impact has had a global reach. She has taught generations – often teaching the grandparents, parents, and children within one family. She can lay claim to a six-degrees-of-separation with most everyone in southwest Georgia, and therefore, never meets a stranger.
Early in her classroom teaching career, Mrs. Adkins set herself apart. Her students could tell the difference, with many former students still claiming that she, “was always my favorite teacher.”
Mrs. Adkins was curious about her students and interested in their lives. She wanted “her children” to know about the world outside of the classroom, their communities, and even their own country, sharing information about different countries and cultures at a time when that wasn’t an expectation set by a school board or curriculum director.
She played classical music in her classroom,introducing students to composers they may otherwise have never heard. She displayed posters of classic pieces of art and taught the children about artists and sculptors. She encouraged creativity and exploration, curiosity and imagination. It was important to her that children think outside themselves and about the world of possibility and opportunity that was available to them.
A big believer in a consistent schedule, Mrs, Adkins’ class came to count on the rhythm of the school day and relaxed into their journey with her. Learning was everything – and the children in her class knew that because she told them so, and they loved her for it.
Early on, Mrs. Adkins wanted to know why some children had a more difficult time learning than others and yearned to know how to help them. She was curious about why some children could grasp reading easily, but struggled in math and vice versa.
Determined to meet the needs of those children, she researched top educators and read about new ideas in education, attended seminars and workshops hosted by psychologists and experts in the field.
Mrs. Adkins brought those ideas back to her classroom and implemented those new ideas and new ways of teaching before they were ever mainstream. Not limiting herself to learning only about educators, Mrs. Adkins often read books about successful people, interested in their strategies and philosophies. She frequently shared those “keys” to success with her class and her colleagues. It was not unusual for teachers to find a Top Ten Keys to Success list ranging from CEO Lee Iacocca to basketball great Coach John Wooden in their mailbox st school.
Once Mrs. Adkins had the foundation for her educational philosophy, “Every child is a winner,” she determinedly approached business owners she knew (and some she didn’t) to support the creation of the Learning Lab at Westwood School.
At a time when research was just emerging on different types of learners and the challenges they may face, The Learning Lab provided testing and tutoring for some and a program of high school and college preparatory work that all children at the school followed for math, vocabulary, and reading.
She found tutors from the community to help students outside the classroom. Working with classroom teachers to schedule one-on-one and small group time out of class, Mrs. Adkins gave students access to the tools they needed to be successful both inside and outside the classroom.
With every true success, you’ll find sacrifice. Supported by the love of her life, husband Bill, Mrs. Adkins defied social norms of the time and was a working mother who continued her own education, at a time when that was extremely uncommon.
Mrs. Adkins sacrificed time, never shirking early morning hours and often staying up late into the night to ensure everything got done. She, like most teachers, made financial sacrifices by spending personal monies on items she felt the children needed in the Lab.
After a 75 year career, there would be no way to total all the paper, pencils, erasers, books, dictionaries, or even gas spent getting from her home to school and back. Although she wouldn’t like it to be said, it’s fair to note that she, very likely, sacrificed personal financial gain, choosing to stay at the Learning Lab rather than go on to obtain a doctorate, or teach at the college level, or even write a book.
She will quickly tell you that she did what made her happiest and what she wanted to do – teach and run the Learning Lab.
There is much to be learned from Mrs. Grace Hatcher Adkins. A Southern lady who defied social norms and stereotypes for working women and working mothers; a woman who was not just curious – but curious enough to act on her curiosity to seek answers for students who needed her advocacy; a woman whose decades long career in education says something important about life, and consistency, and staying the course.
Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Thursday’s reception felt differently because there was so much love in the room. After all, celebrating the life and legacy of Mrs. Adkins, a life lived in service, steeped in sacrifice, and rooted in love should feel different, shouldn’t it?