The year was 1984. I was starting my sophomore year at Pine Bluff High School in Arkansas. At the time, most class schedules were prepared by the school. My school,the largest in the state at the time, had approximately 1,600 students. As such, there were some classes that were taught by multiple teachers.
Biology was one of them.
Didn’t know who she was. But, like all kids, you ask other students about your teachers so you can know what you’re getting. When I said I had Mrs. Whatley, I would get the screw face followed by a “good luck.” That’s all I needed to know. A nightmare in the making.
Who was this Mrs. Whatley person? A biology teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (formerly Arkansas A&M) and a Masters Degree in Botany. She was head of the Science Department. She was a member of The Links. And a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
In those days in Pine Bluff, if you took any class with a Black teacher as a Black student, there was a fairly good chance that the teacher knew someone in your family. And that meant your teacher had a direct connection to someone in your personal space.
And remember, this is 1984. Less than 15 years after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and 13 years after integration fully occurred in my Southern hometown.
Upon entering the Mrs. Whatley’s classroom, I knew I would go through that rite of passage.
However, I had a secret weapon. A weapon that benefitted me and made things WORSE for me every time I used it. I was the son of the ONLY daughter my grandparents had. And since my mother (who was divorced) still kept her married name, teachers struggled to figure out to whom I was related. And I DID NOT make it easy.
Some teachers asked a couple of questions and would figure it out later in the same year. Some teachers would ask once and then let it go.
And then there was that DAMN AKA (the only AKA teacher I ever had) who was determined to figure out who ‘my people’ were on the FIRST DAY!
Mrs. Whatley: Your last name is Reeves?
Mrs. Whatley: What’s your mom’s name?
Mrs. Whatley: Are you from Pine Bluff?
Mrs. Whatley: What’s your dad’s name?
A few moments of silence pass.
Mrs. Whatley: What’s your grandparents’ last name?
Me trying to be slick… Warneda is my father’s mother who is NOT from Arkansas.
Mrs. Whatley: Is that your mother’s parents or your father’s?
Me: My dad.
Why is she ALL in my business?
Mrs. Whatley: What is your MOTHER’S PARENTS’ NAME?
Me: Jay and Mary.
Note how I didn’t say the last names.
Mrs. Whatley: Wait? Jay and Mary?? Jay and Mary Owens??
Me: (sheepishly) Yes.
Mrs. Whatley: Wait? Is your mother Glenda Owens?
Me: (realizing I have been busted) Yes.
Mrs. Whatley: I have been friends with your grandparents for years. YOU KNEW where I was going with this so why would you take me on this trip? I’m going to keep my eye on you!
And with that moment, my descent into hell began! She cut me NO slack. She made a point to remind me about how I tried her. And it was that point, it was all about survival. Just make it through her class.
However, it didn’t stop there. At the end of the school year, the light at the end of the tunnel, she approached me. She told me that she was going to spearhead the establishment of Pine Bluff High School’s first Advanced Placement (AP) Biology course, and it was going to start the next school year.
She explained that it was a college level course and successful completion would enable students to be able to skip their first year of college Biology.
In my mind, I’m thinking “Okay? And? Good for you! PEACE!”
She followed by saying, “I’m only permitted a small and select number of students to be in the class. And I expect you to be in the class.”
“And that wasn’t a request. You WILL be in the class.”
As fate would have it, I endured TWO years of one of the TOUGHEST teachers in our school.
But it was because of that teacher, I became a biology major. It was because of that teacher, I stayed in the sciences and science related areas: Public Health, Safety and Health, Industrial Hygiene, and Disability Law.
It was because of that teacher that my professional career has kept me so close to the sciences and has driven me to where I am today.
As an avid supporter of STEM majors and an aggressive supporter of women and POC pursuing STEM careers, I am glad I had a chance to have had a force of nature and rare Gem in my life.
Rest In Peace Mrs. Jewell Whatley