Etta Imes Marshall was in school for 52 of her 70 years. First as a student and then as a teacher, schools and children were the loves of her life. She tried to retire after 50 years in a classroom, but she couldn't. She got so bored that she went back to work for two more years, and then retired again. After that, she did substitute teaching.
It was never easy, but she seemed to thrive on the tough assignments. She taught children with special needs, behavior problems and learning disabilities. She had Christmas parties at her home in Northeast Washington, near Riggs Park, for the neediest of her children, the ones who weren't likely to find much of a Christmas at their own homes. She didn't like to give up on any child and rarely was she short or impatient, even with most obstreperous, rude and unruly. To complaining adults, she had a stock answer:
"The children are not the problem. You are the problem. You need to take time to talk to them."
On Sept. 22, Marshall died at Holy Cross Hospital of heart disease and the ravages of several strokes.
She was born in Goldsboro, N.C., in the nadir of the Great Depression. As a child, with her parents and siblings, she was part of the mass migration of African American families from the South to the urban centers of the North and mid-Atlantic, in search of a better life. They settled in Fairmount Heights, a small black enclave in Prince George's County, just east of Washington.
The young Etta Imes attended Fairmount Heights Elementary School, where one of her schoolmates was her future husband, Michael Jerome Marshall.
She would go on to Lakeland Junior-Senior High School, which in those years of legally mandated racial segregation in public education was one of a handful of high schools for blacks in the state of Maryland. Her class, the class of 1950, was the last to graduate from Lakeland, which was in College Park, just across Route 1 from the University of Maryland.
It was so near the railroad tracks that the teachers had to pause in their daily lessons whenever the trains went by. There was too much noise. There weren't a lot of frills. No art. No typing. There was home economics for the girls, and basketball for the boys, but the team had to practice at the Hyattsville Armory, a few miles away. They only played against other black schools, which sometimes meant a bus ride to Annapolis and then a ferry boat ride to the Eastern Shore. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge had not yet opened.
But there were dedicated and caring teachers, and you could get a good education if you worked for it. It was a small school, graduating a class of about 50 in 1950. They were close-knit, and the bonds they forged in high school would last a lifetime.
Etta Marshall was something of an unofficial class historian. She kept class records and was often the hostess at quarterly class reunions, where she served up the likes of ham and turkey, pigs' feet, potato salad and plum puddings. In 1989, she was among the incorporators who created a Lakeland High School class of 1950 corporation, which for the last decade has been raising money and awarding $500 college scholarships to African American students in Prince George's.
After graduating from Bowie State College, Marshall went on to teach 34 years in Prince George's public schools. She was at Ardmore, Fairmount Heights, Beaver Heights and Longfield Elementary schools. She retired for the first time in 1984, but then in 1987 went back to teaching at M.C. Terrell Elementary School in Southeast Washington for two more years.
To teach reading, she used to have "DEAR Days," which was a acronym for Drop Everything and Read. To introduce her students to elementary mathematics, she made cookies and had her students figure out measurements for the ingredients from recipes for varying quantities. She had them write stories about their life experiences.
In 1955, she married Mike Marshall, capping a courtship that began eight years earlier when she was working at a family grocery store, Mizell's Market in Fairmount Heights. Back in 1947, there was a single gas pump out front, and sometimes Etta Imes came out to pump gas for a passing motorist.
Mike Marshall was pressing clothes in his father's dry-cleaning shop across the street, and he'd run over to take the nozzle from her and pump the gas himself. That was, after all, man's work. After a while, he worked up the courage to ask if he could walk her home. She said yes. She said yes, too, when he asked her to marry him. He worked 34 years for Safeway, retiring as a supervisor on the receiving dock at the Southeast Capitol Hill store.
They bought their house near Riggs Park in 1960. Etta Marshall made the real estate agent earn his commission. She looked at 40 houses and turned all of them down before deciding on a purchase. Over the next four decades, she was something of a "neighborhood mom," organizing outings, picnics and games for children, chastising them for littering, playing in the street or swearing. As an area neighborhood commissioner, she dealt with police about abandoned cars parked in alleys and with the city bureaucracy about what to recycle.
When her daughter Cheryl wanted to drop out of college at Florida A&M in the late 1970s, Marshall took a leave of absence from her teaching job, got on a plane to Florida and moved into the dormitory with her. Cheryl ended up staying for the semester.
Etta Marshall died just a month after her 47th wedding anniversary.
At her funeral at the Catholic Church of the Incarnation on Eastern Avenue, 14 of her classmates from Lakeland Junior-Senior High School marched in as a group, each carrying a white rose tied with blue and gold ribbons, the old school colors. They left the roses in her open casket.