Beloved Rock Hill teacher Jenny Pearson dies

ColumnistJuly 19, 2011 

— The words "My darlings!" or "You are amazing!" came charging out of a classroom and echoed down the halls at Oakdale Elementary School for all those years - and at Emmett Scott High School before that.

They came from the tiniest teacher - a flamboyant dresser, a stickler for the correct pronunciation of words no matter whether the students came from homes with libraries and nannies, or homes with bare dirt floors and their momma was the nanny in somebody else's big house.

Jenny Pearson taught them all.

The words showered down from the classroom with the beads hanging in place of a door, because that doorway was an entryway into a life filled with possibilities and this teacher was the gatekeeper whose life was all about children having opportunities.

So many times the words have been said in the past few days since Jenny Pearson died - "There was only one Mrs. Pearson!"

Because in her classroom, all kids could learn - and did learn - through the sheer force of her will.

In the fourth grade 30-some years ago at Oakdale, a kid named Chris had an older sister who had Jenny Pearson as a teacher. Chris hoped and prayed to get Pearson and did.

Chris later became a teacher himself, and now, Chris Beard is the principal at Mount Holly Elementary School, just down the road from where he learned from Jenny Pearson.

"She was the most encouraging teacher," Beard said. "She was compassionate and helpful. I am a better educator and person because of her. No student of hers could ever forget her."

Mary Jenny "Precious" Pearson's was a life that bridged black and white, as she taught mainly fifth-graders from 1952 until the end of the 1960s at Rock Hill's all-black Emmett Scott High School - the same school she attended herself. Despite its name, the school served students from first through 12th grade.

"I remember teaching her when she was a bright, energetic student," said Jean Sherer, a longtime teacher at Emmett Scott. "And then I remember when she taught and her class was always the most well-behaved."

When the schools integrated, Pearson was assigned to the rural Oakdale Elementary. She immediately became the famous little lady teacher that Chris Beard remembers. She taught there until she retired in 1983.

Her peers loved Jenny Pearson's style, too, from her eclectic manner of dressing to the command she had over students.

"Jenny Pearson - I called her Ms. Pearson because she was a lady of great dignity - had the respect of all she taught," said Paulette Hallman, who still teaches at Oakdale. "She was a teacher who is remembered to this day by students as making a difference in their lives."

Even into retirement, Jenny Pearson was a character. She often would wear a cowboy hat - "and boots, too," laughed her nephew, W.T. "Dub" Massey - and could be found teaching line dancing at church, volunteering with the Red Cross or anywhere in between.

Her funeral is at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Epiphany Lutheran Church.

"She loved life and she loved her students," Massey said.

A few years ago, a lawyer was elected president of the S.C. Trial Lawyers Association. It is a big huge title of a big huge group made up of so many big shots.

The lawyer, who grew up outside Rock Hill, got up to give a speech. He thought of his own wonderful parents, who were rural farmers and worked hard and had little chance at education.

Then he thought of his wonderful fourth- and fifth-grade teacher - Jenny Pearson - whose expectations that he, Mark Chappell, could and would dare to be anything he wanted in this world if he worked hard in school.

Chappell thanked Pearson, his teacher and friend for four decades, in that speech. He called Pearson a "very special lady."

Jenny Pearson's high expectations changed what Mark Chappell thought he could achieve in his life. He found out he could achieve anything he tried because of that great teacher who knew there was a lawyer in there somewhere.

"She was the greatest," said Chappell.

Andrew Dys 803-329-4065 adys@heraldonline.com

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