“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.” Isaiah 50:4
Did you have a teacher whose impact on you is still felt years, or even decades, later? I was fortunate to have several teachers who fit that description. One of them, Frances McKibben, died over the weekend at age 95.
Frances taught history at Ridgeview High School (now middle school) in the 1970s. She was known as the toughest teacher in the school. On the first day of American history she announced that no one should expect to get As in all three quarters of the class. For me that was throwing down the gauntlet, and I gladly set out to prove her wrong.
Frances was an excellent teacher. She divided that year of history into three parts — revolutions, foreign policy, and democracy. She made us all subscribe to Time and Newsweek and assigned articles to read that fit into those categories. So with revolutions we not only studied the revolt against England; but also the revolutions for Civil Rights and women’s equality going on in the current culture. Foreign policy wasn’t just memorizing facts about treaties and wars; it was looking at the Vietnam War, why we were in it, and why so many people opposed it. Democracy wasn’t just learning about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and our system of government; it was reading about Watergate and discussing how the Constitution applied to those events. My love for politics and current events stems from those classes so long ago.
Frances also encouraged my love for writing and my ambition to be a reporter. Under her supervision I put together an independent study course focusing on women in journalism. I interviewed local female reporters, including Judy Woodruff, then a reporter for WAGA, and legendary columnist and reporter for The Atlanta Constitution, Celestine Sibley. Celestine became my great friend and mentor. I owe that relationship to Frances and the course she allowed me to design.
Mostly what Frances did was teach us how to think. We learned the importance of facts, putting them in context, knowing what was happening in our country, and relating it to the past. For her, history was a living, breathing subject. It was not memorizing facts of long ago events, it was looking at patterns and trends, and seeing how our past has shaped our present.
I stayed in touch with Frances through the years, particularly after I came back to Atlanta in 2004. She came to my installation as rector of St. Dunstan’s that fall. We had lunch once or twice a year. During the pandemic it was mostly phone calls, and one good visit last fall. She was as sharp and acerbic as ever. We discussed impeachment trials and what was going on in the world. When I pointed out to her that a good many of her former students would disagree with her take on politics she retorted that she wished she could go back and fail them because they obviously had not learned the basics of government and the Constitution.
As the news has become more and more filled with stories about state legislatures and local school boards banning books and prohibiting the honest study of history, I’ve thought of Frances. I can hear her scoff at the idea that curricula should make sure that white students are not offended by critical studies of racial issues, or that books should be banned from the library because they might upset someone. People should be offended by parts of our history, she would say. A good education, one that makes you think, will upset you at times. It will shake up your views. It will expand your mind, and make you realize that there is more than one way of seeing things.
Frances did all of that and more. And I am forever grateful.