Miss Autrey made sure you knew the language

By Willis Webb | Published Wednesday, July 18, 2012

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Miss Autrey Smith has been mentioned in passing in this space before. However, with her contributions as a teacher and a human being, she needs to have a column dedicated to her and her accomplishments.

No one will build a monument for Miss Autrey, as she was known to several generations of students in my hometown of Teague, but they should. If you paid the least bit of attention in Miss Autrey’s classes, you were going to be a good speller and a good grammarian. Unless you slept through her classes, you couldn’t help but absorb enough English and spelling to be a good communicator.

Her whole life was about children and teaching.

Miss Autrey is responsible in a large part for any modicum of success I’ve had in a career built around words. I suspect that claim can be extended by scores and scores of her students. Several can also say she gave them a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs and clothes on their backs, plus teaching them in the classroom and about life.

She was a bit eccentric among many endearing traits. Miss Autrey taught grammar (English today) and spelling at O.M. Roberts Elementary School. When I was in her classes in the 1940s, she was already in the waning years of her career.

Two of her teaching methods – diagramming sentences and spelling bees – were especially beneficial to me and built the basis for my involvement in writing, and, I can honestly add, those lessons were extended by superb teaching staff at every level in my hometown.

In grammar, we spent most of our time diagramming sentences. Any run-ons you encounter here are the fault of my over-eager, hurry-up efforts to convey a thought rather than carefully construct the sentence with an understanding of every segment nurtured by Miss Autrey.

As for spelling, she grabbed my attention with the bees where if you missed a word, you were exiled to the end of the line. But, if you excelled and were the last one standing at the head of the line, you were taken to a little corner grocery store across from O.M. Roberts and treated to an ice cream – a fudgesicle, a popsicle or a vanilla ice cream encased in chocolate on a stick – by Miss Autrey on her meager teacher’s salary.

She encouraged me to enter the county spelling bee one year, and I did. There we were before a large audience rather than just classmates and Miss Autrey. I was so nervous that I muffed spelling a word I knew well and finished third. She put her arm around me and said she was proud of me, then took me for the ice cream I always got when I finished first.

There is no question that success in writing is helped along immensely by an ability to properly construct a sentence and the capacity to spell. A bonus is knowing the meaning of most words you are likely to use in crafting a readable piece.

Miss Autrey’s help for her students extended beyond the classroom. I knew of several young men, who through no fault of their own, were separated from family but were given the opportunity to remain in the Teague school system and finish high school through Miss Autrey’s care and generosity. They were given lodging in her modest home, clothed and fed out of her earnings until they completed their public school education.

I wish I’d had the foresight at the time I knew Miss Autrey to record the instances in which she took young men into her home, fed and clothed them and saw that they finished school.

Her contributions to scores of students from my hometown are immeasurable. It’s sad that Miss Autrey and all like her before and since have no monuments other than each young person they gave a leg up in life.

Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience.

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