September 22, 2017

In memory of devoted and esteemed Windham High School teacher Mildred Black by Walter Lunt

Mildred Black, a long-time and revered teacher at Windham High School has died. Mrs. Black, or Mid, as she was known by colleagues and friends, passed away peacefully with family by her side on September 13 following a lengthy illness. She was 84.

Mrs. Black was born in South Paris, Maine, the youngest of four girls in a close-knit, supportive family. Intellectually curious and athletic from an early age, she played basketball and softball at South Paris High School, competing at the county-wide championship level. She also represented her district as representative to Girls State (a statewide gathering of selected high school students who study civics and government).

Her senior year high school yearbook, The Chronicle, credited her with 17 extracurricular activities, including yearbook editor, 4; outstanding student, 3; class officer and prize speaker. 

Mildred entered (then) Gorham State Teachers College, majoring in education, with course-work concentration in English, social studies and economics.

She was immensely proud to have worked her way through college, observed her husband, Jerry. “Mildred was the manager of the dining hall. And over the summer worked in housekeeping in the dorms.”

It was in the dining hall where she and Jerry met. “She scolded me for the way I stacked the dishes at my table,” he recalled with a wry grin. Apparently, he had inadvertently made it more difficult to clear the table after the meal.

Later, the two would become close while participating in various college activities. They married in 1955, the same year Mrs. Black began a 26-year teaching career at Windham High School.

A few of her former students report that they were put off by Mrs. Black’s crusty and stern demeanor. But nearly all agree it was a strategy for keeping a disciplined classroom. Underneath were a hidden charm and a caring, devoted educator. 

One of her first students, Becky Carr, said “(Mrs. Black) came in (to her first year of teaching) very confident. She was always very concerned about the students from a less than supportive (background). She was compassionate, a fine coach and had great respect for sportsmanship.”

That observation became clear years later after her retirement; Mrs. Black told a story about an incident from her early teaching years. It seems one of her students wore badly worn shoes to school every day. As winter approached, Mrs. Black became concerned that the poor boy sat through his classes in wet socks. Through the school administration, she arranged for him to get a new pair of warm boots, for which the young man showed much appreciation. 

When he returned to school the next day, he was wearing his old worn shoes; Mrs. Black wanted to know why. “My father took ‘em. 

He’s wearin’ them,” was the reply. Mrs. Black, the principal and a local constable visited the family after school that day. The father was told the boots had been a gift and if his son didn’t show up at school wearing them, dad would be arrested for theft. The boy wore the boots to school from that day on. “I was still pretty new to teaching. And I was nervous confronting the dad, but we did the right thing,” said Mrs. Black; who then added, “It was a different time.”

Mrs. Black taught English and various classes on civics and government throughout her career, becoming a department head in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

At least three of her early students became her colleagues at Windham High School. “She cultivated my interest and desire to travel as she shared with the class her adventures over the summer, allowing us to feel the hot sun and see the deserts of the U.S. or understand the culture in exotic places like India.” shared Carol Manchester. “(Later), during my early days of teaching…we discussed strategies of working with children. Mostly, I listened, as Mid was a great mentor.”

A former long-time Windham High School teacher, Bruce Elder shared, “From my freshman year in high school to college and adult life, Mildred Black had a positive and profound influence on my life. She was strict about (students) being on time and completing homework. And she wanted her students to be informed citizens, to take an interest in current events and to understand civic responsibilities.”

In November 1963 Gary Plummer, himself a Boys State representative, remembers Mrs. Black’s instant reaction to the news over the school’s intercom of John F. Kenney’s assassination. “She said, ‘Oh my God, I hope it’s not a Communist plot.’” The class, ironically, was Problems of Democracy.

One admiring and grateful student in the early ‘60s was Karen (Keef) Lothrop who wrote: “When I was a freshman, I missed the entire first semester of school. I was in danger of not making it to my sophomore year. (Over the summer) she tutored me free of charge. I passed. (This was) a selfless act (that) epitomized her dedication.”

And from Julia (Varney) Cheney - class of 1964: “One (memory) still amazes me. (In 1989), at the class’s 25th reunion, Mrs. Black was an invited guest. Julia teased and chided her former teacher for assigning a B+ to a paper that Julia felt deserved an A. “She didn’t blink,” remembers Julia, “but said to me, ‘Well, I remember a report you DID get an A on. The one you wrote about the history of schools in Windham.’ I was floored! How many other teachers could do that?”

Even into the 2000s, Mid Black maintained an interest in the lives of her students. Attending a combined reunion of classes from the 1960s, she arrived saying she wanted to talk to “each and every attendee.” She did.

Cindy Elder, a former colleague, remembers Mrs. Black’s personal involvement with friends and families. “Not being a fishing family, we weren’t equipped to provide that wonderful opportunity for our children. Mid took our 7-year-old son out in her boat where he caught his very first fish. He was elated!”

Mildred Black’s long and successful career was predicted over 65 years ago. In their yearbook messages to individual seniors, the South Paris High School teaching staff wrote, prophetically, below Mildred’s graduation photo: “If your school days are a sample of life, you are sure to be a credited teacher.”

She was.

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