Naomi May, 89, sits at a pint-sized table with kindergartener Monce Jasso and holds up flashcards with the words blue, hot and seven. As Monce sounds out each letter, May offers smiles of encouragement to the Spanish-speaking student.
“I enjoy seeing children make progress,” says May, who began teaching at Rose Bud Elementary School in Rose Bud, Ark. (pop. 429), in 1937.
In a career that spans seven decades and three generations, May has taught the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic to some 2,000 students, many of whom now are part of the school’s faculty and staff.
“Miss May has probably had more influence on this town than anyone,” says Kathy Barnard, 48, school secretary and a fourth-grade pupil of May’s. Seven teachers and a teacher’s aide at Rose Bud are former pupils, as are the school nurse, two custodians, two bookkeepers and the assistant principal.
Through the years, May has witnessed a world of changes in the classroom. In the 1930s, before the school had buses and a cafeteria, students walked or rode horses to class, and brought their lunches in metal pails or wrapped in newspapers. Today, computers are replacing textbooks, and erasable markers have made dusty chalkboards obsolete, but May still gets a thrill when a student masters a list of vocabulary words.
“I love being with the children,” says May, a widow whose own two children also became teachers. “It brings me joy when they succeed.”
May wasn’t much older than her pupils when she decided to become a teacher. Her parents provided free room and board to two teachers, and May loved watching them prepare lessons and grade papers.
“I told my dad that I wanted to be a teacher and he said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you, you’ll never make any money.’ I said I’d do it for free.”
After graduation from Rose Bud High School in 1937, May passed her teacher’s certification exam and began teaching second grade that same year. The 18-year-old earned $55 a month. During the next 30 years, May attended summer and night classes and earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway (pop. 43,167) and a master’s degree from Harding University in Searcy (pop. 18,928). She took library science classes and set up Rose Bud’s first library in 1968.
May retired briefly in 1981 to her home across the street from the schoolyard, but every time she heard the school bell, she missed the children. She worked as a substitute teacher nearly every school day until returning full time at age 81 in 2000.
“I didn’t have any qualms about hiring her,” says Assistant Principal Rebecca Evans, 59, who had May as a teacher in fourth grade. “She was one of the most influential people on my going into teaching.”
Nowadays, May is guiding a new generation, teaching 16 Spanish-speaking students the fundamentals of English. After 6-year-old Monce reads aloud a book about the alphabet, she gives her teacher a gap-toothed grin. May praises her effort as she peers into Monce’s mouth.
“Are you getting another loose tooth?” she asks. Monce bobs her head.
May keeps close tabs on her students, whether it’s a wiggly tooth or a difficult-to-spell word that’s makes them squirm. And her devotion to them explains her success in the classroom.
“Children like for you to notice them,” May says. “That has never changed. They like for you to notice their new clothes or if you’re wearing the same color they are. It thrills them to be noticed.”