A Very Good Teacher
Adele Porter Whitmire may have been divorced from the largest employer in Barrington, Virginia, but that did not mean she led a cloistered life. Quite the contrary. The tall, slender woman of advanced years was very active as a patron of the symphony and the opera and sat on the boards governing the hospital and the restoration of the eighteenth-century courthouse in the center of town. She worshiped faithfully at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where she had worshipped almost every Sunday of her life.
In her younger years, she had taught in the public school system. She did not favor the private schools that catered to the children of the wealthy. She sought to give those who could not afford private school tuition a good education, and she had produced some scholarship winners along the way. She had retired from teaching some ten years earlier; by her own admission, it had been a mistake.
Three years later, her husband had divorced her in order to marry his secretary. Adele had bristled, but it all had been made easier by the fact that nearly everyone in town was on her side in the dispute. After all, residents of the small community in the Shenandoah Valley were noted for their traditional values.
Since moving out of the house she and Ed Whitmire had shared, Adele had lived in a small, yet impeccably kept home on Jefferson Street. It offered her a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and was surrounded by lush, mature shrubbery and bright, colorful flower beds. She had made numerous changes to the house through the years, converting a room next to her bedroom into a dressing room and walk-in closet and shortening the center hall to give her a sizable den behind the hall. Originally, it had been designed to be the dining-room, but Adele liked to look out over her garden courtyard as she read, wrote letters, and paid her bills. The former living-room now served as her dining-room, although she usually ate in the den, upon a TV tray. She had added a new bedroom behind the house with its own, private bathroom. It was where her grown son slept when he came to spend a night or a weekend with her.
Adele drove herself about town in a popular-model sedan. It was white; she despised dark-colored cars, saying they looked like hearses. The thing about Adele’s driving was that she liked to speed, and as anyone familiar with the small communities in the Shenandoah Valley can tell you, the speed limits are strictly enforced. And, so, she would be pulled over by one of Barrington’s finest and ticketed.
She long had passed the limit for simply being given a ticket and thirty days in which to pay the fine. Now, each time she was stopped, she was taken to the police station, while her car was towed to the impound lot. She would call her son to come and bail her out. It was a routine that was growing very old and tiresome to both the Barrington Police Department and to her son. He was, after all, the mayor.
“What has our jailbird done today, Sergeant?” Brad Whitmire would ask as he arrived at the police station.
“Fifty in a thirty-five mile-per-hour zone, Mr. Mayor.”
Brad would nod, walk through to the holding cell, and look at his mother.
“Fifty in a thirty-five mile-per-hour zone?” he would ask her.
“Oh! But it’s such a beautiful day. I wanted to feel the wind blowing through my hair,” she would tell him.
Sure enough, her snow-white chignon was windblown.
“You can’t feel it at thirty-five miles per hour?”
“Well, yes, but it’s better at fifty.”
“I should buy you a house out on I-81, where it’s legal to drive seventy.”
“Send me to one of the western states. I’ve read that it’s legal to go eighty there.”
“Fine! To one of the western states, then,” he agreed.
“Pay my fine, Bradford. I’m late for my luncheon date.”
“Is the windblown look in vogue at the Hotel Washington?” Brad would ask her.
The historic hotel was his mother’s favorite place to meet her friends for lunch.
Each time, she would wave him off. “May I leave, now?”
“Not this time, no. You’ve simply got to stop speeding, and it is doing no good for me to pay your fine so you can walk out of here. Suppose you hit a child?”
“I know how to drive a car, Bradford.”
“Yes, you do. Still…”
“Bradford, pay my fine, so I can leave.”
Brad shook his head. “No. This time, we’re doing it by the book.”
“What on earth does that mean?”
“You will have to go before the judge and take whatever punishment he metes out.”
“What!?! You can’t do this to me, Bradford Whitmire!”
“I’d rather do this than see you make a mistake you can’t live with,” he replied. “I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll call a lawyer to come and represent you.”
Adele became furious with her son. She set her jaw and sat down on the edge of the bed within the cell. “Fine! Treat me like a common criminal. See if I care.”
“Those who break the law are common criminals,” he reminded her.
Summoning the matron, he left the cell. He walked out to the sergeant’s desk and placed a call to Adele’s lawyer.
“Of course, she’s furious with me, but this has gone on too long,” he explained.
“I agree, Brad. Better we nip it in the bud right now than let her go on speeding with who knows what results,” the lawyer replied.
Late that afternoon, Brad sat in the back of the courtroom as Adele went before the traffic judge.
“How do you plead?” the judge asked when the charges had been read.
Adele hesitated and looked up at her lawyer, who spoke.
“The defendant pleads guilty, Your Honor.”
The judge nodded and read the file. “Seventeen speeding tickets, and this is the first time you’ve appeared in court?”
“My son usually pays my tickets for me. This time, he let me sit in jail.”
“Your son should have let you sit in jail long before now, Mrs. Whitmire. Are you related to Ed Whitmire?”
“I used to be. No longer,” she replied with a tinge of anger in her voice.
Again, the judge nodded. He looked across the room until his gaze settled upon Brad Whitmire’s face.
“Very well, Mrs. Whitmire. I am going to sentence you to one hundred hours of community service. You will serve at the juvenile detention center, where you will teach safe driving practices to the young people there.”
“Is there a problem, Mrs. Whitmire?”
“I don’t know how to…”
“You’re a teacher. If you can drive fifty miles an hour without having an accident, you must know how to drive. Here is a copy of the state driver’s handbook. The detention center has copies for your students.”
“In addition, I want you to read this book,” the judge went on as he took up another book and thumbed through it. “When you return to court at the end of your sentencing period, I would like for you to present me with a book report on what you have read. It should comprise no fewer than five hundred words.”
“Yes, sir,” Adele replied as the bailiff handed the book to her.
“That is all,” the judge said. “Next case.”
Adele turned to her lawyer, who escorted her to the court clerk’s desk. There, arrangements were made for her to begin teaching the next morning at nine o’clock. She received a map, showing her how to reach the juvenile detention center. She purposely avoided meeting her son’s watchful gaze as he continued to sit in the rear of the courtroom.
“Good morning,” Adele greeted her class as she walked into the classroom the next morning. “I am Mrs. Whitmire. Please be seated for roll call.”
As the unruly youth continued to mill about the room, Adele took up an eraser and threw it full force toward the group. As they turned to see what had happened, she pointed sternly toward the desks. “Be seated, please,” she said.
The students did as they were told.
“Thank you. Please answer to roll call,” she said. As she called the names, no one responded.
“That’s fine. Since no one is here, I’ll give you all failing marks for today.”
“But…,” someone started to protest.
“Did someone say something?” she asked. “Oh! There is someone here. Perhaps, we should have roll call, now that you’ve arrived.”
Now, the students answered. They also answered for two students who were absent.
“An interesting system they have here. They assign a different name for each of a student’s split personalities,” Adele remarked to let them know that she knew what they had done. “Now, tell me: Who is absent?”
In reply, two students walked in and took their seats.
“Splendid! We’re all here,” she said. “I would like to make this an interesting and fun class. Learning to drive and getting a driver’s license is one of the best times in our lives. I won’t bore you with the details of my getting my first license, but I assure you a sizable dent in the fender of my father’s car was involved.”
The students began to chuckle.
“My husband always claimed I was out to bankrupt him with the rising insurance rates he had to pay because of my bad driving habits. Of course, that wasn’t my purpose, but I have always liked to speed. That is why I am here, teaching you. It is community service after being caught going fifty miles per hour in a thirty-five mile-per-hour zone—and not for the first time.”
“Even old people like to speed?” someone asked.
“Of course! I don’t know who the old woman is who keeps looking back at me in the mirror. I’m still the same person I always was. The body may wear out, but the spirit never does as long as we remain interested in life. But enough of that. Let’s get started.”
She passed out copies of the state driving handbook and opened her copy to the first page.
“Oh, skip that page,” she said as she looked down to see a picture of her ex-husband, who had served as an advisor to the state traffic commission during the previous governor’s administration. “That man never did have anything worthwhile to say.”
Gales of laughter rang out.
“Did you say your name is Whitmire?” someone asked.
“Yes. Ed Whitmire is my ex-husband.”
“Uh-oh, nothing. I took him for a king’s ransom. I have my own home. And I no longer have to attend those tired, boring parties he goes to. Now, on the following page, we see the basic traffic signs. You can figure them out without my spending time on them. Just remember that failing to come to a complete stop brings a $250 fine, while failing to yield the right of way carries a fine of $100.”
“Is that in the text?” someone asked.
“No. That comes from my personal experience.”
More laughter rang out. Soon, the students were completely caught up in Adele’s class. Behind the one-way glass, Brad and the educational director of the center chuckled and shook their heads in disbelief.
“They’re going to remember everything she tells them,” the director said.
Brad nodded. “Every word.”
During the second half of the course, the students learned to drive in the driver education car that was assigned to the school. Adele taught that, too, and was fearless as she taught her pupils everything from how to turn the ignition to how to park parallel to a curb.
One of her students decided to try and frighten her by making jack-rabbit starts and stops. Because the instructors have controls, too, she took over at the stop sign and took off, popping gears like a race car driver. The student’s face turned white with fear.
“How’d you learn to drive like that?” he wanted to know.
“I liked to keep company with the wild boys when I was in school.”
Adele’s free spirit saw her through.
“Mr. Garner, please remain after class to discuss a matter with me,” she said after calling the roll one day.
“A matter?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you then. Don’t worry. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
That was the first time a student had addressed her courteously.
Adele nodded and went on with her lesson for the day. When the class ended and the other students departed, Adele called Ted Garner forward, to her desk.
“As you may know, Mr. Garner, I was asked to serve on the committee to judge the school’s writing competition. I have read your entries, and I must admit that I was impressed by them.”
“So?” he asked, giving a shrug.
“You seem to be interested in law enforcement,” she went on, “specifically, detective work.”
“I read about it,” he admitted it.
“Yes. You’ve learned a lot through reading. You seem to have a good grasp of the principles of forensic science.”
“Yeah. That stuff can get pretty interesting.”
“It can also get pretty technical: DNA, blood work, and all. You will need to have a solid background in math and science if you intend to study forensic science in college. Are you working hard in those subjects?”
“College? Who’s gonna let me go to college?”
“I have a scholarship set up at the local college, where they teach criminal justice, forensic science, and several related subjects. I sit on the board that decides who receives the scholarships each year. Mr. Garner, it would give me great pleasure to see your name among the applicants when you finish high school and are ready to move forward with your education.”
“You’d help me get a scholarship to college?”
“If your grades are good and if you are dedicated to the mission, I will do everything in my power to see that you get to go to college.”
“College? Me? I mean, no one’s ever thought I was good for much of anything.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Garner. There’s a lot of ability in the man who wrote the entries I read and in the man I hear asking questions in this class. There’s a depth of interest and understanding that one does not find often in a student. It is my opinion, Mr. Garner, that you can go as far as you will allow yourself to go.”
Ted Garner was fairly reeling when he left the room a few minutes later. When he returned to his dormitory room that night, he took a book from his trunk and began reading. The book was entitled So, You Want to be a Forensic Scientist.
When the semester ended, Adele’s students all made grades of eighty percent or higher on their driving tests. Furthermore, their improved attitudes were reflected in their grades in their other classes, as well.
As the semester ended, so did Adele’s community service. She returned to court, where she presented her book report about a young woman, whose driving habits resulted in the death of a toddler, who appeared from between parked cars. Adele wept all the way through it.
The judge waited while she composed herself. Then, he smiled at her and said, “I understand you’ve had a very productive semester, Mrs. Whitmire.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“I also understand that the Center would like to hire you to teach for them again next year. Would you be interested?”
“I would certainly want to consider the offer. May I have time to think about it?”
“Certainly. When you have decided, give the educational director a call.”
“Yes… Yes, I will, Your Honor. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Whitmire. I think we can call this case closed. Next case.”
Adele accepted a position at the juvenile detention center, teaching not only driver’s education but also what she had taught for years—freshman English. She realized that she had missed teaching, and she found that she was challenged by these students, who had gotten in trouble with the law. Many had come from problem homes, some broken, some alcoholic, but all lacking the love she gave them simply by treating them with respect.
Two years later, she attended graduation at Barrington High School when Ted Garner received his diploma. She sat on stage, for as a part of the commencement exercises, she awarded two scholarships to the local college. One, she awarded to Ted Garner, who had graduated in the top ten percent of his class. His grades for the past two years had been flawless. To her delight, he planned to study forensic science.
Adele would teach at the juvenile detention center for more than ten years before she retired at the age of eighty. During those years, not even one of her students would have another brush with the law.
Copyright (c) 2006, Virginia Tolles. All rights reserved.