The Teacher and the Professor

Virginia Bowman Wilcox, PhD

Dr. Virginia Bowman Wilcox

I am tickled pink for my Wesleyan College sister, Virginia Bowman Wilcox, who was just named one of the 20 best education professors in the state of Georgia!  She’s come home to Wesleyan and currently serves as the head of our Education department, where she funnels all her genius and passion for teaching into the next generations of classroom leaders.


Let me tell you a story about Virginia’s early years in school and a teacher who made a deep impact on her for years.  Names have been changed because…well, the usual reason.

Virginia was in first grade, Mrs. Fineman’s class, when she made the magical connection between the words printed on the page and the story they were telling–she discovered that she could READ.  She was ecstatic!  But there weren’t many books in Virginia’s house.  Just two–the phone book and her mother’s Bible.  Virginia hungered for books.

Mrs. Fineman had a shelf filled with books in her first grade classroom.  She told the children, “These are my books.  I bought them with my own money.  You are never to touch them without my permission and they will never leave this room.”  In the way of small children, Virginia knew the difference between right and wrong…but she wanted to read more than anything.  Each afternoon, she found a way to sneak two of Mrs. Fineman’s books into her bookbag.  She carried them carefully back to her bookless house and told her mother that reading them was part of her homework.  The next day, she brought them back to Mrs. Fineman’s book shelf without a scratch or a smudge.  From September to January, Virginia and her mother spent each evening snuggled close together over the purloined books.

But in January….

This is the part of the story where I interrupted Virginia and squealed, “Mrs. Fineman knew all along, didn’t she?  She was LETTING you sneak those books home!”  Shush, shush, Ashley….let the story unfold.  

One afternoon, Virginia had two books in her book bag and was headed towards the bus.  Mrs. Fineman ran after her with a permission slip that had to be signed and returned the next day.  Virginia held out her hand for the paper, but Mrs. Fineman insisted on putting it directly in the book bag so it wouldn’t be lost.  That’s when she discovered the books, HER BOOKS.  She snatched them out of Virginia’s hands and stormed off.  She didn’t need to ask any questions.  This child was stealing.

By the time broken-hearted Virginia got to her house, her mother had already been called by the school principal and had left work early to deal with her daughter.  Even after she understood that Virginia had never intended to steal the books, she punished her daughter anyway for breaking the rule and lying to her mother about homework.  There were no books to read that night.  The next day at school, Mrs. Fineman chastised Virginia in front of the whole first grade then made her move her desk into a corner of the room so she could be ostracized from the group for her crime.

Virginia stopped reading.  She didn’t read another book until she was in sixth grade.  She faked her way through book reports and did the bare minimum on assigned reading.  Mrs. Fineman’s punishment still stung.  Luckily for all of us, Virginia slipped back into reading when she found a book on the school bus and couldn’t resist it anymore.

Obviously, the story didn’t end there.  Virginia went on to be the first person in her family to graduate from college, Wesleyan College.  She excelled in school and got her degree in Early Childhood Education.  While teaching for her day job and starting her family, she finished her Master’s and her PhD at Auburn University.  Virginia landed her dream job–professor of Education–then worked her way up to department chair.  She’s boundless.

And this next part of the story is why I love and respect her so very much.  Back in May, Virginia wanted to do a Kentucky Derby themed fundraiser at the business that she and her husband own, North Macon Crossfit.  She contacted the director of the equestrian center at Wesleyan to see if there was some project that could be funded with a couple hundred dollars.  The director came up with a perfect idea!  There was a young girl who hung out at the stable and helped care for the horses.  She wanted to attend the equestrian summer camp but her family didn’t have the money.  Enter Virginia and her generous friends and her giving heart.  They raised the money and made arrangements to surprise the girl with a scholarship to the summer camp she yearned for.

That little girl’s last name?  Fineman, of course.  Granddaughter of the first grade teacher who hadn’t taken the time to find out why Virginia had “stolen” all those books and returned them without a trace.  A teacher who couldn’t bend her rule to help a child who needed a little boost.  But Dr. Virginia Bowman Wilcox, Professor of Education, gave a little girl a leg up towards reaching her dream.  I asked her what she felt when she discovered the connection, if she wanted to wreak any kind of vengeance on Mrs. Fineman.  Nope, not a bit.  

Nothing stops Virginia.  She’s just that kind of kind.  

27 thoughts on “The Teacher and the Professor

  1. Susan D.

    Such a lovely story about Virginia! As teachers, we often forget that one little word can effect a child for much longer than it took to say it. I have had to deal with students in the aftermath of what another teacher has told them.

  2. Tara

    This is a precious story. Thank you for sharing it. Bless Virginia’s heart for all she worked through to get where she is today. So thankful for that book she found on the bus. That was lucky for the many, many people whose lives she has touched since then.

  3. tanyadiva

    That teacher….ugh. School in the ’70s was pretty bad. I used to get my mouth taped on a regular basis. First, with masking tape. Then with duct tape. Then, electrical! Because I could always get it off and keep talking.

    Congrats to Virginia!

    1. Baddest Mother Ever

      OMG!!!! I went to private school so our teachers were allowed to do stuff like that. I got paddled a couple of times, my hand slapped with a ruler, mouth taped shut, stood in the corner…the gamut. Were you in public or private?

  4. Michelle Gowan

    What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing. Fortunatly for Virginia’s children, her home is a literacy rich environment. Go back far enough on her facebook page and you will find a photo of one of her girls asleep on a bookcase full of children’s literature. In the greater picture, Mrs. Fineman didn’t steal anything from Virginia anymore than Virginia stole the words from Mrs. Fineman. In fact, she likely set the trajectory of her life.

    1. Michelle Gowan

      I was SO not done when my keyboard froze (and would absolutely not let me add that e to fortunately. This story is a perfect example of the power of a teacher. Good and bad all have the power to change lives. I remember a specific time when I was going through the motions of teaching believing that I was not making a differen

      1. Michelle Gowan

        Difference only to realize thirty years later that I didn’t know what that looked like. Kudos to you for using these words to inspire.

    2. Baddest Mother Ever

      That picture is titled “When Daddy Watches the Kids!” Excellent point–we are shaped by our experiences, good and bad. Mrs. Fineman gave quite a gift to the world when she turned that first grader into a wonderful teacher.

  5. Joe G

    So true what is said about a teacher affecting a student. I was at the same private school as “The Baddest Mother”, and had a horrible experience with a teacher in Algebra. I am still suffering the effects from it today. There is an incredible amount of pressure on a teacher, not knowing which spoken word or which way of handling a situation can cause a huge effect for a person, either positively or negatively.

  6. Chris Antenen

    What they said! I had some super teachers all the way through, but there are always a couple of stinkers in your life. My good ones well outweighed the bad ones. I told my granddaughter over and over about MIss Adams, my second grade teacher – yes, because she asked over and over. Miss Adams was mean, 1939 mean. She had a braid around her head so tight that it squeezed all the kindness out of her brain.

    We only had four grades on our report cards back then, the three R’s and Conduct. Eugene Schwanke and I got checks on our report cards for bad conduct. He had given me a note that said, “If you’re not careful, you’ll break my heart.” (song back then) I took the note, but then she took it. I think she should have been happy that he could write and spell all those words. Both our mothers had to come to school. I don’t remember a single punishment from my mom. She and my dad probably had a good laugh over it.

    Eugene and I recently found each other on Facebook. At 81 he still works for FEMA going to disaster sites to set up IT stuff, and I just do nothing but bug my friends and play scrabble.

    1. Chris Antenen

      I got so wrapped up in myself that I forgot what I logged on to say. That was a great post, a tribute to your friend and to all those teachers out there who work so hard. When will we wake up and pay them what they’re worth for just plain old classroom teaching? I did teach and I know how hard it is to make a difference.

  7. Heart To Harp

    Your friend is definitely a member of the ranks of courageous women who turned bad into good by how they chose to live their lives. What an inspiring story. And isn’t it lovely when you get to see karma at work in the same lifetime!


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