Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

A Special Teacher Cures My Brain Tumor

Walter B. Jackson

She drove a 1955 Chevrolet and parked it in the same spot every day. I can’t remember a time when her car was not parked there. If I had ever walked the four blocks from my house to Ross Avenue Elementary and her car wasn’t there, I think I would have turned around and gone home to watch “I Love Lucy” on our new television.

She saved me from an imaginary brain tumor in the fifth grade and taught me how to write cursive better than many teachers and most adults in our little Central Texas town of Mexia. I spent many nights out in the backyard catching lightning bugs and tracking the constellations and stars she had so vividly described to me in our science classes.

My fifth grade year started out like a nightmare. I was assigned to an old maid teacher who was harder than Chinese arithmetic. In fact, she wore her hair pulled back in a bun so tightly that I was scared she had come out of the hole I had dug in my back yard. (My older brother had warned me that if I didn’t quit digging in the hole I would hit China.)

I was one worried little fifth grader. There was no way I could stay cooped up with that old bag for a whole year. I had to find a way to get myself out of this old biddy’s class.

My creative solution was to get a brain tumor. The first time the biddy teacher asked me to go to the board and work an arithmetic problem, I writhed in pain and begged to go to the nurse’s office. No way was I going to get up there and let her make a fool out of me.

After several trips to her office, the nurse decided she had better send a note to my parents expressing her concern about me having those headaches so often. The plan is working, I thought. I’ll be happy to take this note home.

My parents read it, but did not seem overly concerned. They said that I would be okay and could take an aspirin whenever I felt I needed one. But I knew the seed had been planted.

The next few weeks were just as bad as I had expected them to be. I was about ready to join the army at the age of ten, or run away with the circus that came to town once a year. I tried every trick in the book to keep from going to school. I even spent one day hiding in the sewer drain that ran from our school to the city park.

The final straw came when I got to class one day, and the picture of a hoot owl I had colored was hanging in the library for every student in the school to see. I couldn’t believe my eyes. That old devil had posted it there just to ridicule me. She had no mercy for my inability to draw or color.

My Uncle Beency (Everett Gee Jackson) was a noted artist and California impressionist, but I did not get any of those genes. I could not keep those crayons between the lines. My hoot owl looked like something worse than one colored in a pre-K class of Neanderthal students drawing on a cave wall with their newly found charcoal.

That was it! I had had it! I waited until the coast was clear, and then I proceeded to run home. When I got there, I put on the best show of my life. My mother really thought I was suffering unbearable pain as I held a cold wash rag to my forehead and moaned in agony. She called my dad and told him to come home right then.

To my surprise, when my dad got to the house, he picked up the phone and called my uncle in Houston. He was a doctor on staff at Hermann Hospital. They decided that I should have a check up, and it should be done by specialists in the Texas Medical Center.

I was scared to death, but wouldn’t admit a thing, as we loaded up and headed to Hermann Hospital. What was going to happen? Was this great plan about to blow up in my face?

When we got to the hospital, I was immediately taken into this room with computer-like machines and 3-D movie monitors. Then two doctors came in and went to work. They shaved portions of my head and brought out some electrical wiring attached to one of those machines. I almost flipped out when they began attaching the other ends of those wires to my head with something I thought was candle wax.

I was in that room for what seemed an eternity. The doctors would walk over and adjust the wires, study the monitor, and step aside to talk, so I could not hear their conversation.

Finally, they took the wax and wires off my head and told me to sit up and wait in a chair until my parents came to get me. I did as I was told, but I must admit I was feeling a great urge to break and run. I just didn’t know where to run.

When my folks finally came to get me, all seemed well. They asked where I wanted to go eat and if I wanted to go down Main Street to Playland Park. Now, this park was a cool place for a country boy to go. It was located next to where the Reliant Center sits today and was full of rides and games for kids to enjoy. I jumped at the chance, but I wondered why they were being so nice. Did I really have a brain tumor or something wrong?

After having a great afternoon enjoying myself in the big city, we started home. As we got into the car, I waited for the bad news. There were no good options. Those doctors had actually found something wrong, or they knew I was pulling a scam.

Mysteriously, on the way home, nothing was said about the headaches or the hospital. I was nervous about my future, but I wasn’t about to broach the subject. I didn’t have the guts to.

The weekend passed without incident. I secretly wondered if I shouldn’t have another headache just to make it look good. That thought quickly passed because I didn’t see any need of opening up another can of worms.

Things seemed fine until I got back to school on Monday morning. I reported as usual to the dreaded class and was getting my books out when I heard the principal call my name over the intercom and said for me to report to his office immediately.

Holy crap, what did he want? He only called for students when they were in trouble. Other students had told me he had an electric paddle and that kept the fear of God in all of us. I didn’t know what I had done, but I do know I was about to panic. Was he going to use that electric paddle on me?

I eased the door open to his office with one of those nervous childish grins. “Walt,” he said with a coy smile, “I want you to get your books and report to Mrs. Withrow’s room. She is going to be your new teacher.”

My heart began to pound and that grin quickly turned into a big smile. I could not go get those books fast enough! I was happier than Brer Rabbit after he had talked Brer Fox into throwing him into the briar patch. I wasn’t going to be stuck with that old bag for a teacher any longer, and apparently I didn’t have a brain tumor either.

I collected my books and reported to Mrs. Withrow’s room. I can’t remember anything but good things about school from that point on in my life. I fell in love with this teacher. She challenged me, but always in positive ways. Why, she even cured my brain tumor.

She was my teacher for two years after that. I can remember having long discussions on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, studying about the Russian Sputnik, dissecting frogs, and going on field trips to farm tanks and woods full of interesting stuff.

Mrs. Withrow became my hero. She never showed favorites in her class, but I think that is because she loved us all the same. She had complete control over us, and yet I never heard her raise her voice.

When I asked her about that later, she only said we were special. But I think it was because we all stood in awe of this wonderful lady and teacher. If any student had tried to disrespect her, he would have regretted it. Somebody in our class, if not the entire class, would have taken him out on the playground and pounded his nose on the rocks and into the dirt.

My days in Mrs. Withrow’s class impacted my life in so many ways. This wonderful teacher refused to let me fail. She could always find some way to help me understand my lesson. She helped me succeed by giving me confidence. She would have never intentionally embarrassed me or any other student. Heck, I never even had to worry about any of my art work being publicly displayed.

The other day I met a lady who had the opportunity to meet and visit with Helen Keller, when Helen was eighty-one years old. She told me the thing she remembered the most about her visit was the statement this remarkable woman made to her: “My whole life was changed because I had one very special teacher.”

Gee, I wonder if Mrs. Withrow taught Helen Keller, too?


Walter B. Jackson holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Houston. He spent most of his professional life as a Chamber of Commerce executive in the Gulf Coast Region of Texas. Walter served as president of the Humble, Conroe, and Galveston Chambers of Commerce, and later as Director of International and Domestic Business for the Greater Houston Partnership.

© Walter B. Jackson

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012