J.O. Wilson Elementary holds a jewelry sale to honor Blanche H. Milloy, who died in February


Third grade teacher's assistant Monique Caldwell, left, talks to Kemani Davenport, 8, during the "Blanche Milloy Mother's Day Jewelry Shop" at J. O. Wilson Elementary School on Thursday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Courtland Milloy
Columnist May 11

When Nina Benton heard that my mother had died earlier this year, she and a group of friends came up with a unique way to honor her memory. It was an event called “The First Annual Blanche H. Milloy Mother’s Day Jewelry Shop.”

The shop was actually a row of tables topped with donated jewelry, set up last week inside J.O. Wilson Elementary School in Northeast Washington. I’d mentioned the school in a column 20 years ago, and couldn’t recall having been back since.

“You should see all that has happened at the school since then,” said Benton, a former magazine executive who began volunteering at the school after reading the story.

When I showed up this time, dozens of elementary school kids were mulling over hundreds of necklaces, bracelets, earrings and brooches, then picking one or two as gifts for their mothers.

“I think she’ll like this,” said Ja’Khia Matthews, 7, holding up a pair of purple feather earrings.

My mother would have liked it, too. She died in February, at age 87, in Shreveport, La., where I grew up. Her only connection to J.O. Wilson was mothering the boy who had written a story in 1994 about Christian Washington, a fourth-grader at the school, who had read an astounding 1,000 books by the time he was 9 years old.

Neither Mom nor Dad, who is 89, could have imagined that just teaching me to read, write and type a story would be enough to earn my mother such recognition. The way they saw it, that’s just what parents did. Both had been career high school teachers, and they knew that when great things happened at school, it was usually because some unsung heroes had gone beyond the call of duty.

Those were the people my mother would have been most honored to meet.

People like Erma Fields, the principal at J.O. Wilson from 1980 to 2002. She’d held the school together with spit and tape, making do with textbooks that had been published in the 1950s. She’d relied on a bucket brigade of teachers to catch water from leaky ceilings — and teach at the same time. She accommodated working parents by opening the school doors at 7 a.m. and staying sometimes as late as 9 p.m., until the last child had been picked up.

Fields, who now lives in Virginia, spends much of her time these days caring for her mother, who is 103. She could not get to the jewelry shop. But I’ll see to it that the shop makes a special delivery — although nothing on those tables could ever match her priceless gifts to the school.

People like Benton and Carol Wheeler, who started the Friends of J.O. Wilson, always inspire awe. They seem to have a gift for imagining the world as it should be, as the saying goes, and creating it through sheer force of will. Weary of so much bad news about D.C. public schools, Benton and Wheeler wanted to help Fields give every student at her school a chance to excel like Christian Washington.

The Mother’s Day Jewelry Shop was a 20th anniversary celebration of their effort. The Friends group — which includes longtime civic dynamo Bitsey Folger — has helped raise nearly $3 million for the school. Most of the money has been used for renovation. But members of the group also landscaped the school playground, built a fully furnished ballet room, enhanced the school’s foreign language classes and started after-school study groups. They began organizing field trips. Rachel Kennedy, for instance, arranged for students to visit her son, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy Jr., in his chambers.

Under Heidi Haggerty, who succeeded Fields as principal, reading and math scores are up, the suspension rate virtually nil. The school has 440 students, from age 3 to fifth grade, most of them black.

As for Washington, the bookworm, he became a lawyer and works at the law firm Polsinelli PC, lobbying on behalf of historically black colleges and universities in their quest to make higher education more affordable. His father, Ernest Washington, a retired Safeway employee, and his mother, Kaye Christian, a senior D.C. Superior Court judge, are no doubt proud of their son.

His grandmother, Alice Christian, began teaching him to read when he was a year old. She died in 1993 and never saw the column about him. Like Mom didn’t get to see the wonderful Mother’s Day jewelry shop named for her.

“I picked earrings and a necklace,” 9-year-old Arshay Costley told me. Asked how she knew that her mother would like the gifts, she replied, “Mom likes anything I give her.”

My mom was like that, too.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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