Mrs. Rigsby

In 4th grade, I got put in the dumb class.

I guess I had it coming.

I’d been a bad kid the year before. Stealing chalk from the teacher’s desk. Pushing another kid into the water fountain, and busting her lip. Generally talking back, and being disrespectful to adults. “Who’s gonna to make me?” I heard myself saying to the principal of our school.

It was the year my father died, and I was heart broken. I remember drawing a picture of him, holding a balloon, and some flowers. It said, “My Dad. I love him But he DiDe.” I also drew a heart with 6 tears, and the word, “cry” inside it, and I gave myself an E+.

E, for excellent, was the highest grade you could get at my school.

My mother, a psychologist who worked with troubled families, and was the trouble with her own, looked at my drawing, then read the words back to me, with contempt. “I love him, but he died”, she said mockingly.

Why would I be scared of the principal? She was a nice lady.

The teacher of my new class, was Mrs. Rigsby.

Mrs Rigsby was a dark skinned Black woman, who grew up in the South. She showed me a picture of a little girl dressed in white, with ebony skin, and short braids. There was a deep feeling of sadness about it. It was Mrs. Rigsby.

One morning, during our school-wide pledge of allegiance, I noticed my teacher was not repeating the words. I asked her why. She said, “With liberty and justice for all” was a lie. She had been brutalized, and seen others brutalized, during the civil rights movement, by forces meant to protect. Back in her classroom, she put on Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. First, the crackling of the needle, then that voice, moving the crowd with waves of inspiration, “From every city and every hamlet…Let freedom ring!” The pledge of allegiance was not just a lie, it was a criminal bore.

Our regular lessons would start out by-the-book, but soon, I’d raise my hand, interjecting an opinion, my perspective, some philosophical tangent. Mrs. Rigsby never denied me. She’d close her textbook, and let me take over. “Go on.” she’d say, “Talk.” It was the first time, that truth telling didn’t get me into trouble. It was the opposite. She valued it. Mrs. Rigsby was on my side. That would have been more than enough, but she also taught me how to sew a skirt, bought me Harold’s Fried Chicken (Better than Sylvia’s. Sorry, New York.), and had me for a sleepover in her home.

She knew I needed extra, and she gave me what I needed, when I needed it most.

I can never repay her for that.

I try to pay it forward in the work I do with children. Children who need extra.

In 4th grade, I got put in the dumb class.

In 4th grade, I got lucky.

I got Mrs. Rigsby.



About honor finnegan

I'm a singer-songwriter, storyteller, and essayist. Also, a special education itinerant pre-k teacher, Heartfulness meditation trainer, and New Yorker.
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