Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Losing a Force of Nature

Many years ago, I was pulled out of my kindergarten class to help Mrs. Miller with something. Now, Mrs. Miller was the founder and head honcho at Brainerd Baptist Kindergarten, and her family and ours were like . . . family. Anyway, this was a big deal, right?

After I ran through any of my behavior that might cause the head of the school to pull me out of playhouse time and determined I should be clear, I felt pretty special. I mean, Mrs. Miller needed my help with something. So I go out into the hall with her, and she sits down in a little chair. "Mary, I want you to pull out any gray hairs you see." Whaaaat?? Well, of course I didn't say that. I was a little kid and a grown up friend and teacher told me to do something, so, OK. I spent several minutes eyeing any gray hair in her side-part (I don't think there were very many) and yanking them out. Mission accomplished. Then I went back to my classroom.

Now, why Mrs. Miller had asked me to perform this particular honor, I'll never know. Maybe because she knew I needed to be rescued from Mrs. Jones' class or maybe because my family and hers were such good friends that she knew I could be trusted. Whatever. I was asked to do a task, and I completed it to her satisfaction. That's my earliest definable memory of this incredible woman, who'd known me since birth.

She started one of the first modern kindergartens in Chattanooga, Tennessee, pulling together creative, loving teachers (including my mother) and drawing a rather large number of 4- and 5-year-olds for her half-day school.

In her ground-breaking  kindergarten, I learned all about my five senses. I learned the song "It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day." I learned my first cheer: "Apples, oranges, peaches, candy, Brainerd Baptist Kindergarten you're so dandy!" I learned to sit in a circle and listen to a teacher. Bottom line, I learned lots of things in kindergarten, as you do, of course. And all of this was driven - and I do mean driven - by Mrs. Miller. The school was her vision of what kindergarten for little Baby Boomers needed to be. Right time, right place, right vision.

Summer of '63 - I was 12 - she hired my sister Cindy and me to 1) help organize/cut out/assemble all the artwork projects for the upcoming kindergarten year, and 2) babysit for 2-year-old Star (you were a handful, Star). So in the midst of "Blowin' in the Wind" and Martin Luther King's March on Washington, we were camped out at the Millers cutting out circus animal patterns, chasing a 2-year-old, and eating our weight in Campbell's tomato soup (made with milk, not water). I know many of my famous organizing skills were birthed during the summer of '63.

The summer I left for college, we sold our house on South Moore Road and moved - guess where? - next door to our good friends the Millers. Now we really were like one big combined happy family. The Fraziers and the Millers. 

I'm writing this rambling little memoir because Fonza Miller Barkley died on Sunday at age 93. If I had to sum her up in one word, I'd say "Enthusiasm!!" (complete with exclamation marks). She was tall and had impeccable posture. When someone with her physical stature is enthusiastic, then - wow - that energy just fills the universe.

She was, of course, so much more than a standard happy, enthusiastic person. She really did make a huge impact on pre-school education in Chattanooga. That kindergarten she started is now a thriving pre-K through 5th grade private school. She was active in the Eastern Star and lent her talents to many other endeavors. But I knew her outside of all of that. To me, she was a force of nature.

My last memory of her was sharing brunch with her and son Glenn last spring when I was in Chattanooga for a weekend reunion. Though older and frailer (too many gray hairs to pull out now!), that famous enthusiasm was still there. We laughed and hugged tight before saying our goodbyes. I'm so glad I got to share one more tiny slice of my life with her.

Farewell, Fonza. It's a hap-hap-happy day in Heaven. There'll certainly never be a dull moment up there, dear lady. And no more gray hairs!

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