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I met Mrs. Oliver in 1969 when my family was recruited to be bused from the Hilltop area of Tacoma to Ruston Elementary School in the North End of Tacoma. This was when schools started integrating in our area and our family was the first and only black family in Ruston Elementary that year. I was in the second grade. Miss Oliver was recruited, right out of college, from an all-black community in Louisiana to teach at my new school. This was her first time leaving home, first time on a plane, first experiencing an all-white community and first time teaching. So, there we were, two strangers put into two very new situations, together in one classroom in what would be the most pivotal year of my education because of it.
When I arrived in Mrs. Oliver’s class that first day, I could not read. All the other kids in my class were reading and I felt even more out of place realizing I couldn’t do what the other kids were doing. With great wisdom and understanding, Mrs. Oliver drove me home that day (that’s back when teachers could do things like that). She spoke to my mom and asked her if she could keep me after school every day so she could teach me to read. There wasn’t enough time during the day for her to do this, but that she was willing to put in the time if she could keep me after school. My mom agreed, of course, and there began the relationship.
Mrs. Oliver had an incredible ability to make learning fun. She made our time after school like a treat, playing games with me and helping me build my confidence. She didn’t let any of the other kids make fun of me and I never felt embarrassed, she made me feel special. Mrs. Oliver has shared that teaching me to read that year was her golden purpose. If she didn’t do anything else, she would make sure I could read. Over the course of the year, I learned to read and was able to catch up the other kids in my class. At the time, Mrs. Oliver didn’t have any children of her own and she really liked me (I can’t say I blame her, I was adorable), so she would have me over to her home for visits. I wasn’t just a student to her; Mrs. Oliver’s love for education and desire for me to be successful and succeed made her invested in me as a person. She took me under her wing, and she continued to walk with me for the rest of my life.
Mrs. Oliver stayed at Ruston Elementary for 16 years until she decided she was ready to open the next chapter in her life. She believes in being the master of her own destiny and now allowing someone to close a chapter to your book, but instead opening the next chapter herself. She and her husband were one of the first black couples to be brought to Africa to teach. During this time, they traveled all over the world and would share her travel stories with me, always the teacher and always the storyteller. In total Mrs. Oliver taught for 38 years impacting many more lives.
To this day, Mrs. Oliver will call me at work with an idea for my business, whether it is a new cookie or a new customer I should go after. In preparing for this tribute to her, she told me that she is proud of the things I have done with my life because just knowing that I succeeded with just a little help amazes her. She has always been proud to tell my story because she knows that she was the one that was able to see me and invest some time in me, giving me that little help I needed at just the right time.