Ignorance and insensitivity in a dark theater

By WILLIAM JEANES,

Let me tell you a story about unruly children and a remarkable woman who did her best to control them. Until 2019, I didn’t know how remarkable she was.

The years were 1948 and 1949. Every Saturday, youngsters from North Jackson congregated at the Pix Theater on North State Street across from Duling School. We went there to watch western movies and thrill-a-week serials such as Perils of Nyoka. We hooted, whistled, clapped, cheered, and booed; when we weren’t doing those things we raised non-specific hell. There were popcorn boxes to sail. There were peashooters, but because no one ever had peas, spitballs were the ordnance of choice.

Disorder waxed and waned, always involving noise. Presiding over this bedlam was a woman named Aline, red-haired, severe, not unattractive, and surely unflappable. Kids who didn’t attend Duling, including delegations from Power Elementary School and similar outposts, didn’t care for her.

Aline would walk down to the screen and then back slowly up one of the two aisles in the darkened Pix, seeking miscreants and evildoers. She withstood the occasional thrown popcorn box or paper wad and silently endured stage-whispered insults, but her constant backward march produced an uneasy level of control.

By 1950, we’d moved on from cutting up at the movies, and for 70-odd years if I thought about Aline at all, it was not with affection. Then last month, one of my pals from that period, Russell Thompson, mentioned a teacher from Duling School who had won some kind of national teacher-of-the-year award in the 1940s.

That interested me; I love local-person-makes-good stories. An hour with newspapers.com revealed the teacher, a Miss Neal, to be the woman who once worked at the Pix. And there was more.

The popular Quiz Kids radio program, produced in Chicago by NBC, engineered a nationwide contest to name the Best Teacher of 1947. They invited students in the radio audience to nominate a favorite teacher.

Thirty-three thousand students wrote essays; one was a nine-year-old Duling student, Edgar H. Nation Jr., who nominated his fourth-grade teacher, Aline Neal.

Judges winnowed the 33,000 letters to 600, then to 100, then to 20; Edgar’s essay made every cut.

In late May, Edgar learned that his essay (and a required “philosophy of education” essay from Miss Neal) had made her the nation’s Best Teacher. He won $100 and received almost as much attention for writing as Miss Neal got for winning; Time magazine published his essay.

“Miss Neal made me feel like I was somebody,” Edgar wrote. “She called my mother once and told her how much I had improved in my arithmetic, and how well I was doing my work. To me that was so wonderful that I felt like working my head off for her. I began to feel like I could do things as well as the others…

“I believe the main reason Miss Neal is such a good teacher is because she likes to teach school and she likes people.”

He concluded with, “She’s pretty, too.”

 

Miss Neal became Jackson’s personality of the moment. The board of education feted her at a luncheon attended by a platoon of Jackson’s heavy breathers. She received a raft of gifts. There were teas and luncheons. Mayor Leland Speed and both city commissioners saw her off on the one-week vacation to Chicago that she had won.

At the Windy City end of her first-ever plane trip, she received a “head-to-toe outfit” from Marshall Field & Company and other prizes including a check for $2,500.

“This was the direct answer to a prayer,” she said.

And no wonder. In 1947, Miss Neal was in her 26th year of teaching, nineteen of them at Duling School. She was 46, unmarried, and since 1923 had worked to finish her college degree. Each year she borrowed from a Jackson bank to pay summer school expenses; each winter she paid off the loan. The 1947 summer would be different.

At Duling, Miss Neal earned $1,900 annually, which she supplemented with part-time work at the Pix Theater—three hours each evening and from noon until 9:30 p.m. on Saturday.

She took a bus home to Brandon, where she lived with and supported her mother and invalid father.

The Pix paid Miss Neal $58 a month as a ticket taker and Saturday overseer -- about ninety cents an hour. Week after week and year after year, she worked a 70-hour week. 

She earned her delayed B.S. degree at Millsaps College in 1948, and Mississippi College conferred her Masters of Education degree in 1959.

In the 1950s, she taught at the Sanders School of Cerebral Palsy and the St. Andrews Day School. She served as superintendent of elementary education for Rankin County. She called teaching “a profession only less exalted than the ministry.”

Her father died in 1950, her mother in 1966. Edgar Nation Jr. died in 2004; his obituary mentioned the 1947 essay.

Miss Neal died at 92. Her gravestone in the Dry Creek Cemetery near Florence bears her name, the dates 1900-1993, and the notation, “She was loved.”

William Jeanes is a Northsider.

 

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