This teacher knew there was a time to work and a time to play
Thirteen-year-old girls and boys are by definition slightly out of control. How would you like the job of attempting to make sewing, cooking, dishwashing and manners a relevant issue to young girls who spend hours wishing their hair was straighter, or curlier, or blond or … you get the picture.
Mildred Byerly was a teacher in the Harrison County school system for 37 years, beginning in Mauckport and New Amsterdam where she spent a half day at each school with a contract that paid her $1,000 a year. Her real niche turned out to be the Corydon Junior High, where she took on the job of teaching Home Economics to those pubescent girls ‘ and even boys for a six-week stint ‘ fearlessly until she retired in 1980.
Byerly’s life began with some difficulty. When she was 2, her mother died giving birth to her younger sister who also died two months later. Her father was overwhelmed and left Mildred with her aunt here in Corydon while he went to find work in Iowa. She saw her father once a year during his vacation week for the rest of her childhood. When Mildred was 8, she contracted transverse myelatis, a polio-like paralysis that left her for a time only able to move her head. A close call to be sure, but she lived and went on through life with mobility problems long before ‘accessible’ was a common word. She married ‘Red’ Byerly and had a daughter, Muriel. They built the house ‘on hospital hill’ where Mildred Byerly, now 92, has lived for 61 years.
I am writing this story now because we are coming up on one of the only reasons I would ever consider regressing to the age of 13 again. The Christmas Dance, held every year in the gym of the old school building off Chestnut Street, was an event that generally measured up to a young girl’s imagination. Byerly set her students to the task of cutting snowflakes for the festooned ceiling of the gym.
‘They had to be unfolded carefully and then pressed perfectly. And hung with string,’ Byerly remembers. ‘We went through a lot of typing paper. That was a very low budget event.’
Her decorations brought out quite a few parents who popped in the gym early on dance day to look down on the transformed gym from the ramps above. Byerly and Principal George Merk were also the instigators of the lunch hour lower hall dance sessions.
‘We didn’t agree on everything, but we did agree on that,’ Byerly remarked. ‘We felt like the kids should know how to dance.’
A good teacher knows when a young girl needs to rip that zipper out and do it again. Yes, there is order in dishwashing. Glasses, silverware, plates, pans. A great teacher also knows when students need to just dance and be joyous. There is a time for work and a time for play in all things.
Thanks, Mrs. Byerly, for tirelessly giving us both during our craziest years.
Leah Porter is at the Harrison County Public Library in Corydon on the first and third Saturdays of the month from 1 to 3 p.m.