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.