Miss Ray Katherine Netterville — teacher extraordinaire
By Jeffrey L. Salter
This week’s topic: Who is the person (besides your parents) who had the biggest impact on your life?
I struggled with this topic because I can name perhaps a dozen individuals who had a tremendous impact on my life, at various stages. The list would include my big brother, some beloved Sunday School teachers, a pastor, two Air Force bosses, etc. But parallel to all those individuals were my many outstanding public school teachers. As I thought back over that short list, it occurred to me that the teacher who started it all – and set me on the path to deftly intersect those other teachers with the right frame of mind – was my marvelous third grade teacher, Miss Ray Katherine Netterville. Below is her story – as it pertains to me – and I’m pleased to inform you that I was finally able to track her down (not too easy when you have no idea who she married) some 50 years later (2012) and shared most of the following with her. Also, in 2014, I dedicated one of my novellas to her.
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To make it easier for her brand new third-graders, Miss Ray Katherine Netterville abbreviated her complex surname to one syllable: Miss Nett. But almost every one of us used two intonations to pronounce it: ‘Miss Neh-yut’ (due to the southeast Louisiana drawls which some folks possessed). Every other teacher in Covington Elementary seemed ancient in the warm, early September of 1958. But OUR classroom had Miss Neh-yut — young, eager, enthusiastic, and likely a little nervous … on her very first day of teaching. On the freshly cleaned chalkboard, she wrote her entire surname, which was certainly no struggle for me to enunciate. But I was so fond of the abbreviation, I likely wore it out telling my family all about my terrific new teacher. “Miss Neh-yut this … Miss Neh-yut that.” She had ‘netted’ me.
Truthfully, I didn’t know where she was from, but it seemed to be some other place than our small city about fifty miles north of New Orleans. [I’ve since learned she hailed from Crystal Spring MS.] But she had wonderful, progressive ideas for her first teaching year … and she showed remarkable courage and ingenuity as she employed them.
In its second year, the school complex was built on a large, leveled expanse at the corner of a busy street and a sleepy residential lane. The north and west sides were bounded by woods. Besides numerous piles of rubble, most of the west side grounds were still covered in coarse, black, splintery cinders. Many a knee and elbow came in from recess with scrapes and cuts. Of course, ‘big’ third grade boys wouldn’t call attention to ordinary abrasions. It had to involve real blood for us to seek our teacher’s ministrations and sympathy. Miss Nett would attentively examine each ‘qualifying’ wound … and we were as proud as if a beloved colonel had just awarded a Purple Heart. She wasn’t allowed to provide medical care herself, as I recall, but she was quick to send such a wound to the office (in the north wing), where the principal’s secretary could deal with it. [Mercurochrome and Band-aids were likely the standard protocol.]
Her Interest in Me
Miss Nett took an early interest in me. I don’t know whether I was actually her ‘pet’ but she made me feel that way … and I loved feeling ‘special’ in her eyes. It evidently grew from some spark she’d identified in me – early on – which she fanned into a flame of academic pursuit. My mom later told me it was at least partly based on some achievement or aptitude test. I don’t even recall the test, but evidently I scored at the very top of the percentile brackets. Miss Nett was supposedly astounded that her very first classroom included such a ‘genius’. I’ll admit I was a bright, inquisitive kid, but I’m disinclined to place much emphasis on that test. I think it was a case of her zeal for teaching and her love of kids.
Possibly because of that test score, Miss Nett selected me and a couple others to do some extra work in a ‘parallel’ reader called The Five-and-a-Half Club. Working independently, we’d read a section and then write answers to workbook questions. It was my first exposure to ‘reading comprehension’ … which I’ve been pretty good at every since.
That was the year my bike was stolen from school. When I first realized it was missing, Miss Nett was who I ran to. It was my Dad who later got it back from the thief, but Miss Nett was the first to comfort me and I suspect she also saw that I got home okay. Because she cared.
The south wing was for first, second, and third grade. The middle wing had fourth, fifth and the library. North wing had gym, cafeteria, and office area. Except when we went to lunch (or the gym for scheduled functions), the lower grades were not allowed out of the south wing area. That’s valid from a safety standpoint, but we were also restricted from the school library! Each class in the three lower grades had only a small run of books in shelves along the back wall. I’m sure Miss Nett bristled at such a limited reading selection, but evidently it was firm: lower grades were not allowed in the library. She did the best she could with the inadequate classroom collection, but she also devised special trips — escorting me and three others to the ‘big’ library.
A good bit of Miss Nett’s extra attention and additional stimulation of my intellectual development could be viewed as merely a first-year teacher’s idealism and enthusiasm. But to what extent would she go to meet other needs of students? Would her outreach even venture off-campus? We soon learned both answers.
Cold Hands, Warm Breath
That winter was especially cold and included one of the few snowfalls during my early school years. I often rode my little bike (with 20-inch wheels) to school (about nine blocks from home). One frigid day I arrived at school with my face and hands seemingly frozen. I guess Miss Nett had playground duty that morning and must have seen me ride up. With the tenderness of a loving nurse, her soft, warm hands gently rubbed my small, frigid extremities. As I stood there shivering, Miss Nett exhaled her warm breath on my hands until they ‘thawed’ enough for me to wiggle my fingers. Truly, my hands were ‘freezing’ from the ride, but what she provided was far more therapeutic than merely warming my digits. Miss Nett warmed my very soul. I couldn’t imagine any of my other teachers – before or since – doing what she did. She was so caring and seemed so empathetic that I thought she might even cry.
Missed 32 days of School
In the spring of that term, I caught hepatitis. That dangerous disease had only one known type in the 1950s … so I can’t put a letter on the end of it. I assume mine was caught by contagious contact with other hygiene-challenged school-yard kids … like germs from water fountains or the boys’ restroom. [It was at least another year before the lunch room installed a trough sink along part of the waiting line so kids could wash their hands before eating.] I suppose if a student is hospitalized, a typical teacher would communicate with parents and allow the child to make up work and tests upon returning to school. But that was not enough for Miss Nett. She actually visited me in the hospital, several times, during my two weeks of incarceration. She bought homework assignments (which I could’ve done without, frankly), but she also stopped to chat … and brought me much-needed cheer. No rambunctious eight-year-old wants to be confined to a hospital bed for 14 days. My visitors and the activities they brought helped keep me from going stir crazy. Miss Nett was my favorite caller. Even at that age, I sensed these visits were way above and beyond her teaching duty. She visited because she truly cared.
With my hospitalization and additional weeks of home recuperation, I missed a total of 32 school days (out of 70) in the fourth and fifth reporting periods of Spring 1959. Though I was not aware of it back then, as I think about it now, I’m sure a student missing that much time would automatically be ‘held-back’. For whatever reason, I was allowed to stay with my class and I have to assume Miss Nett played a large role in allowing that to happen.
Yes, I Had a Crush on Her
I guess I should admit that I had a big crush on Miss Nett. I no longer even recall her actual appearance, but the TINY photo in the miniature ‘yearbook’ shows a young woman, with a roundish and pretty face. There’s no smile in that photo, but I remember many smiles on her real face. Truly, though, it was her heart which really attracted me. School-kid crushes on teachers are common enough and mine probably wouldn’t bear mentioning … except for the gentle way Miss Nett handled my young heart without me feeling ridiculed or rejected.
Near the end of that school year I announced to my Mom that I wanted to visit Miss Neh-yut’s apartment, in the complex across Jefferson Avenue from the Catholic Church. Somehow I’d assumed she lived in the front building with the really cool iron stair railings. I wanted to climb those railings and I wanted to ‘visit’ Miss Nett. Evidently my mom explained the situation and arranged my visit. So, after school one day, I actually got to ride home with Miss Nett in her lumbering, late 1940s sedan! I don’t know if these distractions were coincidental or whether she designed them, but my visit was delayed briefly since she stayed late at school (while I waited near her car). Then she had to stop somewhere for a short errand. Finally we got to Miss Neh-yut’s apartment and I learned HER place was over the garage in the back of the complex … not the one in front with the cool iron railings. [So I didn’t get to climb anything but stairs.]
Even at age eight I was aware that this short visit was not typical … kids didn’t usually go to their teacher’s apartments. But she gave me a small glass of cola as we sat in her little kitchen and chatted about something. In my adult years since, I’ve suspected that she was slightly embarrassed, because my Mom surely had spilled the beans about my crush. Miss Nett handled the delicate situation deftly and tenderly, but she was doubtless relieved when my Mom arrived (early) to pick me up. When I think of how a less thoughtful teacher could have mis-handled that potentially awkward situation, I’m especially grateful that Miss Nett had such wonderful instincts and such a caring heart.
Lost Track of Her
After that year ended, I lost track of Miss Nett. I’ve since learned that she probably taught another year of third grade (when I would have been in fourth, in a different wing) … and she may have then taught fourth grade the year I was in fifth. Funny thing is: I don’t recall ever seeing Miss Nett after third grade, even though I must have been in the same school with her for two more years. After I moved to the junior high school, I don’t know whether she stayed … or where she went. I suspect she moved to a larger school system outside of St. Tammany Parish. I hope she continued to teach.
What I Learned From Her
I still don’t know how she finagled getting me and three other eager students into the ‘big’ library at school, but I credit her with early cultivation of my life-long love of reading and libraries. It was important enough to her … for her to buck the system (at a time that wasn’t widely done). The fact that I later went to graduate library school and spent 28 years in public librarianship may be directly traced back to Miss Netterville.
I firmly believe she helped shape the ways I deal with children … especially energetic eight-year-olds. The first class of Sunday School kids I helped teach were third graders. I would look into their faces and see myself all those years before. I occasionally thought: What would Miss Neh-yut do?
What a significant role – in all the important areas of my life – has been played by my best teachers! I’ve been blessed with several wonderful instructors, but the very first of all these ‘best’ teachers was Miss Netterville. It was she who initially identified and ignited the scholastic spark which those other great teachers also cultivated. A few I had thanked at the time (as I went through school) or shortly afterwards. In my early forties, I set about to locate my other ‘best’ teachers and express appreciation to them. I found several and wrote to them. The only one I’ve never found is Miss Nett. I didn’t even know her first name was ‘Ray’ until my Mom searched her memory banks and came up with it. Later, I stumbled across my report card and saw her signature: Ray Katherine Netterville. After repeated Internet searches over the years, I finally found what I believed was her married name, Dunaway. Miss Nett was probably about age 78 when I finally tracked her down in May of 2012. For years I’d hoped to be able to reach her. I would have hated for Miss Nett never to know how much of a positive impact she had on an impressionable and energetic third grader … over a half-century before.
All that I remember of Ray Katherine Netterville were things which far transcended her lesson plans or other teaching obligations. She warmed my frozen hands with her breath, took me to the ‘big’ library (against the ‘rules’), visited me in the hospital to bring my assignments, and handled my childish crush without breaking my heart. She reached my mind, my heart, and my soul … and will reside there forever. Thank you, Miss Neh-yut, for being my first ‘best’ teacher. I love you!
[JLS # 575]
What lovely memories! I loved my third grade teacher, too, but I’d be hard pressed to recall so many details about her. So glad you were able to locate her.
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I do remember this story; it is wonderful that this woman had such a great influence on you, that you had such support and that you accepted and appreciated it.
I am also glad that you found her.
I know you will all excuse me for being absent this week. Covid has me weak and very fuzzy-headed.. Believe me, I am usually ready beforehand, and hate not giving it my best, but my best would probably make no sense. My train of thought quickly derails, (even this took a while to put together.)
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totally understand the effects of covid. in my case, I didn’t even enter my study for a couple of weeks… except to check on emails from my siblings and nieces / nephews.
What a warm, touching memory and tribute. Even after all these years, you still hold such fond regard for Miss Nett. You were so fortunate to have a teacher like her, someone going over and beyond her task. She essentially put you on your life-long path with books. Sadly, I believe we lack that type of compassion from educators these days.
Thak you for sharing. A story like this reminds us that we all have the ability to impact someone’s life positively.
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Such a special part of my childhood. And I’m so gratified that I was able to track her down, even though it took over half a century.
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Great story. As a teacher, I hope I impacted at least one life with good memories!
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She sounds like a wonderful teacher. I hope that as a teacher I was able to influence lives for the better as she did.
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I’m sure you did. And I hope some of them will be able to locate you to let you know.