Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mrs. Cherry Sends Me to College

For new readers and strangers in town, my nickname for the past 15 years has been Doc Star. "Doc" because I have a doctorate in English which I earned by hanging around Florida State University for a long, long time.

That little piece of paper with its pretentious title opened the door for a career in teaching, a career I wouldn't trade for anything. I have no doubt that that's why I came into the world. In a sense, I lived to teach. I was pretty good at it, but more importantly I wasn't any good at anything else. That allowed me to believe it was my calling.

I never would have heard that call without the help of Mrs. Lucile Cherry, the guidance counselor at Madison High School. For one thing, I might not have lived long enough to hear it. I graduated in 1968, shortly after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and I would've been drafted and sent there as soon as some gentle drill instructor taught me where the trigger was on those new-fangled, unreliable M-16s.

Growing up, I never really considered college as an option. After being a star student under the kind and lovely tutelage of Mrs. Poindexter in the 2nd grade, my school work very slowly began to fall off. I lost interest in it, mainly, and spent my after-school hours playing basketball or reading non-assigned books. At Pinetta Jr. High, I made lousy grades in Mrs. Morse's English and math classes, and Mrs. Shadrick's science classes, and Mr. Bennett's geography and history classes. (I did okay in Mr. Brothers' Vo-Ag class -- hey, I was president of FFA.)

I remember gazing out the window of Mrs. Morse's freshman English class, daydreaming about basketball and dreading going to Vietnam, because I "knew" I was headed there. I gazed, daydreamed and dreaded so much, I was ruled academically ineligible for our first game that year, and that still hurts to think about.

In the two years that followed at Madison High, I sort of gave up on school work altogether. All I enjoyed was writing sports stories for the school paper, the Devil's Ledger (seriously).

So one day, our sponsor Mrs. Faught told us she'd been reading an article in the newspaper about the New Morality of the 1960s. We didn't know what she was talking about as usual and she got flustered as usual, and decided to send one of our reporters down to ask Mrs. Cherry what she made of this whole New Morality scene.
Mrs. Lucile Cherry

The reporter returned about five minutes later and she reported to Mrs. Faught, "Mrs. Cherry doesn't know anything about the New Morality." That's what we heard her say, anyway, but then Mrs. Faught asked to see her interview notes, and the first question read this way: "What do you know about the Numerality?"

Mrs. Faught proceeded to bruise her own forehead with the palm of her neatly manicured hand. She shook her head. She read aloud to the class: "N-U-M-E-R-A-L-I-T-Y!" She removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes in despair, then scanned the classroom, her eyes finally settling on me.

"Roy, would you go ask Mrs. Cherry what she thinks of the NEW MORALITY of the 1960s?!"

When I got there, I tried to explain that the story wasn't about the new math or anything to do with numbers, really, but suddenly Mrs. Cherry interrupted by asking, "So where do you plan to go to college? I don't think I've seen any application work from you."

I told her I wasn't going to college. She stared at me, probably in disbelief, waiting for an explanation.

"I don't have good grades and I don't have the money to go to college." I figured that would put an end to this conversation and I could get back to the New Morality. I was wrong.

Mrs. Cherry leapt from her chair as if she were putting out a fire. Suddenly desk drawers and file cabinets were being yanked open and slammed shut. A hefty pile of forms began to accumulate on her desk. She picked them up and gave me a look that only she could give. It said "What were you thinking? Are you out of your mind? You're going to do what I say with no further discussion." It was an awfully stern look, but not without love and care.

It was all in her eyes. Mesmerizing. I wish I could describe it better. I wish you could see it. I expect every good teacher, guidance counselor and parent has a look something like that in their repertoire. It's not an act, not a look they put on. It's genuine, it's true, and it's priceless.

She commanded me to take all those forms home and fill them out and have my parents fill out the financial-aid forms and get them all back to her in two days because the deadlines were coming fast. She surprised me by pointing out that my Senior Placement exam scores (no SAT or ACT yet) were high enough to get into FSU or UF, but I could go right down the road to Madison's own community college if I'd rather.

Either way, she said, "You're going to college."

How did I feel? Much like I did back in 1958 when I woke up one morning -- in north Florida -- to find my yard blanketed by 5 inches of snow. This New Reality (neurality?) gave me the same floating sensation, disbelief mixed with bliss. I had good-news overload with no anxiety about such a turn of events. I realized that the term "awestruck" wasn't just for stories, that such a condition actually existed. 

I had a rare episode of certainty, volition, faith. I had no doubt that I would fill out those obnoxious forms and convince my parents to fill out theirs.I would treat this new possibility with the courage and the reverence and awe it deserved.

So that's it. I went to college. (Before I left Madison High, I flunked chemistry with Mrs. Hamilton, but I somehow managed to graduate anyway. That, too, was probably Mrs. Cherry's doing.) 
An article about the Cherrys' Old Book Store

I don't think a day goes by when I don't thank Mrs. Cherry in my heart. I shudder at what my life would have been like without her, and, of course, without the Numerality. When I visit Madison, I stop by the Old Book Store -- my favorite book store in Florida -- which Mrs. Cherry owns and manages, and I thank her again and she always remembers me and catches me up on all the doings of my classmates and of my sister's classmates. Of course she remembers -- she's only 93.

Thanks again for caring, Mrs. Cherry. It made all the difference.


  1. Mrs. Cherry really hasn't changed, has she? She had an impact on so many.

  2. My Aunt Lucile has impacted so many ! Everyone knows her. Proud to be her niece.

  3. So touching, Roy! Thank goodness for the 'Mrs. Cherrys" in this world. I have a somewhat similar story, but the instigator turned out to be an old boyfriend...Thank goodness you went and got that Phd and shared your talent with the world. :-)

  4. Well, Roy - I'm sure glad you were "cherry picked." I will have to go visit the bookstore in Madison, because my dream is to have a book shop of my own when I quit this teaching thing.

  5. Then your last name better be either Barnes or Noble. Thanks for reading.I guess I really was cherry-picked. God luv'er!