Dorothy Waring Howard, a well-known and respected nursery school teacher who, for 32 years, taught her charges the value of education, manners and love, was honored recently by friends, family and former students on her 90th birthday. Special correspondent Marilyn Robinson, a student of Howard's from the early 1950s, attended the event and reminisced about the days when Howard's nursery school, the first licensed black nursery school in the District, trained some of Washington's best and brightest.
It's been a long time since we were all dressed like peas and carrots from Mr. McGregor's garden, acting our childhood plays at nursery school.
Yet hundreds of former Flopsys, Mopsys and Cottontails gathered at Howard University's Blackburn Center recently to remember those days and celebrate the birthday of a teacher who started our lives with love, tempered discipline and a wellspring of patience.
Dorothy Waring Howard, 90 years old with misty eyes, cut the three-tiered cake and beamed proudly at her "babies."
Some of those babies were 50 summers gone with grown children standing at their sides. Others like myself were struggling to control toddlers and infants who were chasing brightly colored balloons and one another. This was an occasion to reflect on the old and the new and to share in the racial pride that came from so many successful former students.
We were honoring a teacher who employed the traditional no-nonsense approach to education. The room was packed with achievers whose parents had stressed the value of a sound education. This was a day to wonder what makes the teaching job so difficult in 1983; a day when it was easy to think that great teachers of the past knew of some magical potion that made learning a joy. Howard, who was raised in Washington, graduated from the former M Street High School, which became Dunbar High, and the former Minor Normal School, later known as Minor Teachers College.
Teaching was a part of her family fabric: Both of her parents were teachers, and her husband, Dr. William J. Howard Jr., was a dermatologist who taught at the Howard University School of Medicine.
In 1929, she opened the Garden of Children School at her home at 1728 S St. NW. It was the first private black licensed nursery school in the city and it operated for 32 years. She was convinced black youngsters could benefit greatly from an early learning experience, a risky concept in an era when children were brought to school for kindergarten and not before.
She developed the early-start concept with the help of some of the greatest black minds in the country, many of whom lived in Washington. They gave her a precious resource: their children.
"At that time there was nothing like it in Washington or anywhere else," says Ruth Bunche, wife of Ralph Bunche, the late under secretary of the United Nations and a Nobel Prize winner. "Ralph was a political science professor at Howard during those years and we sent our girls to Dorothy's school. We felt very comfortable removing them from home at that age, but then I knew and trusted Dorothy."
Dr. Montague Cobb, former dean of the Howard University School of Medicine, said recently, "Mrs. Howard was a woman who radiated love and the children sensed it. I don't remember either of my girls ever not wanting to go to school."
" . . . Daddy! Don't walk up the stairs before mommy. Mrs. Howard says . . . ladies first . . . "--William Johnson, December, 1934, to his father, Mordecai, president of Howard University.
If there were any keys to the success of the teaching methods at the Garden of Children, they could be found in reading and good deportment. Reading was everything. Lessons were recited and each child was taught to enunciate clearly. Little gentlemen helped little ladies take a seat or perhaps they were reminded to hold the door. Little ladies responded to all this attention with pert, pretty smiles and prompt thank yous.
Of course there were a few munchkins who found all this goodness difficult to comprehend. These children were sent home with loving personalized notes, embossed with smiling babies and fluffy bunnies. These children returned the next day greatly improved.
"Adelaide dear: . . . this is a tiny note about a tiny angel. Marilyn is the joy of our lives . . . happy . . . independent . . . and most intelligent. She can be a bit fractious when things do not please her . . . and somewhat dictatorial with her playmates . . . and she skipped the line during game period. Full of energy, wonderful to watch . . . needless to say we all adore this child . . . "--Dorothy W. Howard, January 1949; notes on me.
A glance at the alumni roster of the Garden of Children verifies that this was a special place. Famous black sons and daughters leap from the page, attesting a strong success rate. Was it Dorothy Howard or the fact that these families placed a high premium on education?
"I think it was both," said Aurelia Roberts Brooks, president of the Board of Trustees of the California State Museum of Afro-American History and Culture.
"Mrs. Howard encouraged me to read and my mother backed her up at home. My mother wanted me to learn French and Mrs. Howard focused on that with me. The school was an extension of my home; both worked as a team. This breakdown is what is causing the crisis in public education today."
" . . . a good teacher must love being around children. Even a neglected child can progress if a teacher shows love. Then too, we teachers must be prepared. We were dedicated to wiping out illiteracy and we were not afraid to do the job. We did not fear accountability and we were disappointed if we failed. We were dedicated . . . . "--Dorothy W. Howard, June 1983; on teaching.
At the celebration recently, Howard dabbed her eyes as City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D--Ward 4) read a proclamation in her honor.
During the reading, my fidgety 4-year-old, exhibiting flawless manners, told an elderly doyenne who was trying for a kiss, "Lemme go, lady."
I wondered what Garden of Children would be willing to mold this headstrong miss. Except for those few hours, there was no returning to the past. We must all rely on a new generation of teachers to train a new batch of peas and carrots. Do they know about the old traditions? Do they care as much as Mrs. Howard? Are they equal to the job?
" . . . the mission of schools is to provide the best possible education for all students and to afford them every opportunity to learn. We are ready and we will accomplish this task. Mrs. Howard recognized the importance of a strong practical early education for District youngsters. Her foresight and compassion is a living example for our teachers today."--Floretta D. McKenzie, superintendent of D.C. public schools; June 1983.