Reading the letter about the “incredible” teacher brought tears to my eyes. Her words changed a man who was a “nobody” in the 70’s to an “incredible somebody” today. As a teacher, it impacted me big time. Your’s can be impacted too.
To the family of Mrs. Jessie Gilstrap,
To the family of Mrs. Jessie Gilstrap,
Texas 4th grade teacher
at Vidor Elementary in 1976.
From the age of one (1966) my sister and I had lived with my maternal grandparents, my mother was an alcoholic and had been in and out of several tumultuous marriages. In 1974 she had gotten married again and decided she wanted her family together so she came and got us from my grandparents and moved us from Oak Forrest Elementary to Vidor Elementary early during my second grade year. To say the least things were less than perfect, my mom and her husband continued to drink and fight. My grandparents came often to visit and I can remember them always leaving sad, my grandfather would hug us and usually shed a tear or two. It was not until later in life that I realized it broke theirhearts to leave my sister and I in this situation yet there was not much during the early 1970’s that they could do.
Now don’t get me wrong this note is not to receive pity or sorrow, because the truth of it is when you are a child of a parent, or parents, battling addiction at the time you do not really realize it, sadly the chaos you see and live daily becomes your normal. You get home from school and let yourself in then you play outside until your parents get home which was usually late because they would meet up at the bar after work. When they got home you would stay low profile while they drank and fought until they finally drank enough to pass out. Then you would get up and fix yourself something to eat, if there was not dinner made that night which was about sixty percent of the time, watch a few shows then get yourself cleaned up and ready for the next day. My grandparents would usually call us late in the evening, if they did not come by, and my grandmother would remind us to set our alarm to get up for school the next morning. My sister and I would get ourselves up, dressed, and off to school usually on our own. I give a lot of credit to my sister, a fifth grader, who rolled me out of bed and helped me get ready. Now I am sure we were not the cleanest or neatest dressed students in the school but we got by.
In 1976, I was a fourth grader at Vidor Elementary School. My teacher was a wonderful lady named Jessie Gilstrap. She was an older lady, soft spoken, extremely caring, and tolerant of all of her students. My mom had the grand idea of being the homeroom mom for the year; now for most kids this would be awesome, but over the past two years of living with her I knew this was probably not going to work out well. Mrs. Gilstrap immediately took to me, and I can fondly remember thinking that I must be her favorite student. I would get picked more than most for the funtask of feeding the hamsters and she would call on me often to answer questions or do mathematics on the chalkboard. When it came time to hand out our lunch cards she would call each student up and give them their lunch card that would be punched by the lunch ladies at the register. She always would forget a few in the lunch room mine always being one of them, and tell us she would tell the lunch lady when we got to the register that they already had our card. I realize now that myself, and a couple others usually did not have a card and Mrs. Gilstrap was making sure we were fed. Funny looking back I can always remember having more on my plate than most of the kids and there was always an extra milk and usually an extra dessert. Now most would say all teachers would do this but the sad truth is I can remember going through many days in second and third grade without a lunch.
As I said it was 1976 so it was the year of the Bi-centennial. I can fondly remember all of the hoopla building up to the celebration, making all the red, white, and blue hats and banners. We had a party in our class and we each read about a different president, I of course got to pick mine first and chose Abe Lincoln, the parents all came up to watch. I can remember my mom showing up and I immediately knew she had been drinking as did the teachers, and it got to the point they had to ask her to leave. Needless to say as embarrassing as it seems now, back then I was glad that they had asked her to leave, and do not really remember being embarrassed about it at all. Amazing how tough the shells are that you can build up at that age. After she left Mrs. Gilstrap came up to me and said “I need to see you in the cloak room”, now those familiar with Vidor Elementary knew that the cloak room was used for one thing and that was a paddling so I remember being a little nervous to say the least. As we went in to the cloak room Mrs. Gilstrap bent down and I remember her having tears in her eyes and she said “I want to tell you something and I want you to remember this for the rest of your life. You can be like her, or you can become something incredible, it is your choice”.
Not long after this my mother and her husband filed for divorce. My mom brought us back to our grandparents house and disappeared on and off for about 6 years occasionally showing up for a birthday or Christmas. My grandparents let us finish the year out at Vidor Elementary and then transferred us back to Oak Forest. On the first day of fifth grade I showed up to class and there was Mrs. Gilstrap talking to my new fifth grade teacher. I found out later she had come over to fill in my teacher, Mrs. Low, on the details, and to make sure I was settled in. She gave me a big hug and then hugged my grandmother and headed back over to Vidor Elementary to meet her new group of students.
I never saw Mrs. Gilstrap again, and as I said earlier it was not until later did I realize what a HUGE impact she had on my life. I am sure Mrs. Gilstrap had a “special” student or two in every class she taught. So many teachers pick their favorite students and it is usually the ones that are the smartest, best dressed, the most popular, or the ones who have the great home room moms that are always up at the school helping, these are the students that are sitting in the front rows and “feeding the hamsters”, but Mrs. Gilstrap would always pick the ones that she knew NEEDED to be the favorites.
I have always regretted not finding Mrs. Gilstrap later in life and letting her know how much she meant to me and what an impact she had on my life. Sadly she passed away before I got that chance, so I wanted to let her family know how awesome a teacher she was. I have resorted to putting my story out there and hoping it finds its way to them. So if you have a moment share this story and hopefully one day it will connect with someone that was kin to this fine lady.
My wife is now a first grade teacher and I always tell her to find the students that seem like they need the most attention because chances are they do.
Forever Grateful for Mrs. Gilstrap
Richard Turner Morreale Vidor Class of 1984
P.S. Mrs. Gilstrap, I opted for incredible…..