The Tiny Teaching Giant of Tyler
By Marvin Mayer
A popular bumper sticker a few years ago began with the phrase: "If you can read this, thank a teacher." Tyler area students fortunate enough to have had Sarah Marsh for their English teacher might want to paraphrase that statement this way: "If you can accurately and effectively read and write English, thank Miss Marsh."
Sarah Marsh taught at John Tyler High School from 1928 until moving to Robert E. Lee High School in 1958. She retired in 1964 after teaching and "raising" nearly 4 decades of students.
To her students and her fellow teachers, diminutive Sarah Marsh was the acknowledged giant of public school educators at a time when the "three Rs" were still being taught. Class room discipline, rigidly enforced in Miss Marsh's English classes, was an integral part of the charm and mystique of a woman who, standing not more than 5' tall, demanded and expected nothing but the best from her students. From her desk drawer arsenal of blackboard erasers, with pin-point accuracy she hurled her "attention getting" missiles at any student who was not paying attention in her class. It made no difference to her if the unruly student was a shy, normally well behaved young lady or the mischievous star line backer on the football team. Any form of classroom disruption would trigger the launch of an eraser to the head or chest of the offending student, followed by an embarrassing confrontation with Miss Marsh.
Teaching by strict compliance to rules was her M. O., and there were a lot of rules. Rule #1 was be punctual. Students were expected to be at their desks, ready for class when the opening bell rang. In her treatise titled "Yes Ma'am, Miss Marsh," Judith Caswell quotes Naomie Byrum, "She punished me the whole year because I was fifteen seconds late to her class my first day at John Tyler." Explaining her tardiness, Miss Byrum says she was lost and walked into the wrong classroom. The teacher there looked at Byrum's schedule and screamed, "Oh my gosh! Come with me!" She grabbed Byrum's hand, and reminiscent of the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, hurried through the halls, repeatedly exclaiming "You can't be late. You can't be late!" Young Naomie was pushed into Miss Marsh's classroom literally seconds after the bell rang. Miss Marsh said nothing immediately. Naomi said she stood in the back of the room, bewildered, until Miss Marsh asked her name.
"Yes? What is your name?"
"Naomie Ruth Stiles."
"Miss Stiles, you will sit here in front of my desk."
Miss Stiles said she felt Miss Marsh punished her with special assignments for the entire school year, all because of that 15 second late arrival on the first day of school.
Apparently out of a desire to foster respect for one another, Sarah Marsh called her students by miss or mister and their surname. She expected her students to address her as Miss Marsh, and to add yes ma'am or no ma'am when responding to her.
Other rules included no gum chewing, no pencil sharpening after the morning bell, and no one was to touch the windows or blinds. Violators could anticipate an eraser being launched directly at them. And if by chance the eraser missed its target and sailed out an open window, Miss Marsh directed the offending student to retrieve it. She allowed exactly two minutes for recovery of the errant eraser.
Rules applied to grammar in Miss Marsh's class as much as they applied to behavior. Per Miss Caswell's essay, Miss Marsh would write all of the punctuation and spelling rules on the blackboard. Students would have to copy all 100 rules in their notebooks and commit them to memory. Then, students would have to write them back to Miss Marsh, crossing every t and dotting every i, ensuring all commas and periods were used correctly. Even a single mistake or omission would result in a failing grade for the course. The test could be repeated as often as necessary until the rules were written correctly. Dictatorial disciplinarians like Miss Marsh aren't often revered, but this lady was a notable exception. Then student Mary Jane McNamara says Miss Marsh wanted students to write correctly and she was never willing to give up on them. She (Marsh) was going to make something better out of each student even if she had to scare him/her to death to do it.
In Yes Ma'am Miss Marsh, Former student, John Saleh, is quoted this way. "Miss Marsh was fair. Her class was structured well, and I knew exactly what she wanted. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I did her writing assignments well. She taught me to write well. She was the best English teacher I ever had and the most attractive teacher at John Tyler. Miss Marsh explained everything clearly. She was a disciplinarian, but I enjoyed being in her class."
Naomie Byrum adds, "… I felt a sense of peace, order and security in Miss Marsh's classroom … I remember she gave me a lot of personal attention. .. She was a lady of great tenacity, courage and spirit. She felt a deep joy in being able to tame the savages, and she had a real reverence for the written word."
Finally, Mary Jane McNamara considered Miss Marsh to be charming, cheerful and full of fun. … She transferred all her mothering instincts to generation after generation of children whose lives she meant to improve and she did. A good teacher like her raises everybody's children. She has had an eternal, positive influence on several generations of this city." Good teachers come in all sizes. Miss Marsh is an example of a giant in a pint-sized body. Maybe that's where the "one size fits all" slogan came from.