Winifred Farmer, the retiring principal of Seat Pleasant Elementary School, believes that children need to be cuddled.
During 35 years with the Prince George's County school system, Farmer has combined toughness with a compassionate approach to educating young children that enables her to pull on their heartstrings long after they leave her school.
Tuesday was declared Winifred L. Farmer Day in Day in Seat Pleasant by Mayor Frank J. Blackwell while a chorus of students she has both cuddled and drilled sang and dedicated the school's new library in her name.
In elementary schools, said Farmer, 57, a tall woman with strong hands and a broad, confident smile, "We teach the child. So often on the (junior high and high school) level they teach subject matter. . . . I think they would do better to cuddle more. You are better able to understand children if you can cuddle them sometimes."
At Seat Pleasant, a steady stream of children has felt free to come into her office every day -- just to talk. And they often appear well-trained in the Farmer philosophy.
"Are you enjoying yourself today?" she asked a grinning 9-year-old last week.
"And who controls that?" she asked.
"Me," the boy responded.
"Whether you have a good day . . .
"Or a bad day," he answered, completing the lesson.
Her influence over her pupils can also extend to long-distance discipline. Once in the early 1970s, her husband George called her from Maryland Park Junior High School, where he was the principal.
"A little boy (who had attended Seat Pleasant Elementary) was having a behavior problem. My husband . . . put the child on and I proceeded to give him a nice tongue-lasing over the phone. My husband said, 'What did you do? This boy is standing here with his eyes full of water'," recalled Farmer.
Winifred Farmer went to yseat Pleasant Elementary in 1964 as a fourth grade teacher, handpicked, along with another black teacher named Ursula Gray, to integrate the faculty of the school. Two years later she became the first black principal of what was a white school before the elimination of the dual school system.
Farmer faced parents who threatened to pull their children out of the school, and frosty attitudes from those who stayed.
Then the school and the city underwent a drastic color change following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965. According to Farmer, many of the white working class families in the city professed to be frightened by the riots in Washington that followed King's death and feared that racial violence would spill over the nearby District line. Many white families moved north to Hyattsville and Riverdale only to find their children returned to yseat Pleasant by bus after the 1973 court order for busing to integrate schools. For a time, their anger caused problems at Farmer's school but she dismisses the periods of racial ugliness with professional confidence.
"I still felt I had a mission," said Farmer. "I don't care who you are, people are all the same. I've been in this a long time. People may not realize this but I know they are all the same. They all want what's best for their child. They all come around sooner or later."
Farmer grew up during the Depression in Chapel Hill, an island of black families in southern Prince George's near the intersection of Livingston and Old Fort roads. Growing up on family land, surrounded by large black families and reared in the Methodist church founded by her great-great-grandfather gave her confidence and pride in herself, she said.
"Prince George's County was very segregated," said Farmer, the second of four children born to federal government skilled laborers. "We would not go (further) into the southern part of the county. We did not go to those places where they had 'black and white' on the door. We were right at the doorstep of D.C. We didn't have to be subjected to that kind of humiliation. We looked to the District for everything."
Though Farmer completed her first seven years of education in the two-room Chapel Hill elementary school, she became an honor student in one of the District's large and well-respected junior high schools, Francis Junior High in Foggy Bottom.
For high school Farmer returned to Prince George's attending Frederick Douglass, then located in Upper Marlboro. It was one of two high schools for blacks operated by the county. A bus wound its way through Prince George's to pick up scattered students who rode for as long as an hour to get to school.
Farmer said she never wanted to be antthing but a techer, though she admitted that she had few options.
"The generation before me and my own . . . well, that's all blacks could do, be a preacher or a teacher," she said. "Things have opened up for people since then."
She received her undergraduate degree in 1945 from Bowie State College, one of the two teachers' colleges for blacks in Maryland at the time, and began teaching almost immediately at the all-black North Brentwood elementary school.
Blacks could not enroll for graduate work at the University of Maryland at the time, but the state would subsidize the cost of a black resident's education elsewhere. In this case, Farmer said segregation had a good side effect.
"I never stopped going to school," said Farmer, who received her masters degree from New York University over the course offour summers. "Black people automatically do that. I couldn't go to the University of Maryland. But I was an A student and the state of Maryland was obliged to pay for my education. Most of us went to NYU of Columbia (Columbia University in New York.) There was not doubt they did us a favor."
Harold Lambert, now an administrator for the southern area schools, who became principal at Seat Pleasant Elementary when Farmer joined the staff as a teacher in 1964, remembers her as "a very positive person, very forthright."
"She served notice on people that she was a very strong person. She was well-educated and knew how to deal with adults as well as children. I think her forceful style served her well," he said.
That forcefulness helped her deal with questions such as the one from a parent in 1973 who demanded to know about the problems her child would face after being newly bused to the school.
"[She] asked, 'what are you doing about the drugs and crime in your school?' I said, 'Nothing. Madame, do you know that this is an elementary school?' It floored her."
But Farmer said that the worst of her struggles against ignorance are over now. She could have retired five years ago but she wanted to be with her teachers this year for a scheduled review of teacher and student performance at Seat Pleasant by the school administration. Besides, she said, "You have to be in the right frame of mind. Like anything else, it (retirement) has to be planned."
When she leaves at the end of the month, she will take home the large yellow quartz rock with the signatures of dozens of students, teachers and friends on it. It sat like the anchor of the school in her office, as she did, but she will put it in a special case in her home, glad to be free of the weight of responsibility.
Farmer, whose husband retired from the county school system last year, has two grown children.
"Time does go by fast," said Farmer, who added that she and her husband "want to do things together. It was time for me to get out. His making his decision (to retire) helped me make mine."
Farmer added that in retirement she expects to feel like "a free spirit again."