Comments from the canyon
Published: Friday, May 27th, 2005
Last week’s column about Mary K. Babcock and her ability to discipline students caused a number of phone calls and visits at the coffee table. Many of her former students wanted to talk about their experiences in her classes. As we recounted our stories, we realized that many of the readers did not know Mrs. Babcock. Several suggested I give a few details about our teacher and friend. None of us knew her when she was young and learned very few details about her past. She came to teach in Tucumcari in the 1930s and was already crowned with white hair above her striking, leathery face. Obviously, she had aged early in life and changed very little during the next 40 years. We never knew her age because she changed that on occasion in order to avoid thinking about retirement. Her favorite attire was a tweed suit, tailored blouse, brown, cotton stockings and sturdy shoes. When she strode down the hall, the crowds parted. And when she entered the classroom, the noise subsided. She did mention having served as a deputy sheriff long before women served in such a capacity, and she liked to talk about her training in boxing before many women even considered pugilism as a sport in which we might become involved. Although Mrs. Babcock was only medium height and weight, she stood tall and striking wherever she went, giving the appearance of a no-nonsense person. She was partial to the boys in her classes, much to the chagrin of us girls. but she would discipline any boy who was less than respectful and wasn’t above using some of her boxing skills should the need arise. She might not have looked very strong in her aging condition, but she could make a believer of any football player who crossed her path and could quell giggling girls with a look. Because my brother paved the way for me by inviting her to our home for dinner when he was in her class and introducing us when I was still in grade school, I was allowed to breathe fairly easily in her biology class at Tucumcari High. But I wasn’t about to take advantage of that early friendship as I didn’t want to be the recipient of some of her disciplinary actions. Despite her stern outward appearance, she had a lively sense of humor and was a very warm, caring person as I quickly learned when I returned here to teach. The line between teacher and student disappeared as our friendship grew and mutual respect resulted. Several of her ol’ boys talked about some of her disciplinary tactics as we visited last week and seemed to agree that one infraction of her rules caused them to think before acting again. Even though they knew she would rather teach boys than girls, they learned to avoid taking advantage of that partiality. Some of the big ol’ girls mentioned their dismay over that partiality and the hard work they had to do in order to keep high grades. Mary K. Babcock was a mystery when she came here because she spoke little about her earlier life, but she has become a legend as stories have been told by her students and friends. She was most definitely her own person, followed her own trail and taught us whether or not we wanted to learn. Her sense of self-discipline gave her a chance to discipline us; her sense of self-respect gave her a chance to teach us respect; and her sense of humor gave us a glimpse of the lively lady in the tweed suit whose memory we cherish.
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