Life Lessons

Yorktown High School’s longest serving teacher has taught her students much more than grammar and sentence structure.

Students at Yorktown High School still remember the day they walked into their English classroom to find it empty—no desks, no chairs, no nothing. Their teacher, Barbara Ratchford, had purged the space.

She knew exactly what she was doing. The idea was to use this discombobulating experience as a springboard to a discussion on who leads and who follows when the unexpected happens. Ratchford is a master of the teachable moment. And her classes are anything but predictable. Just like the news.

“Barbara gets kids,” says fellow Yorktown English teacher Terry Eiserman. “They tend to adore her.”

When I visited Ratchford’s television studio class last fall, the students were busy. The summer earthquake had shaken much of their expensive equipment off the shelves, and a well-meaning custodian had randomly restacked it. The producers were making sure all of the cables were properly reconnected while the news anchor tended to wardrobe issues.

“Check your cleavage,” the unflappable Ratchford told her on-air talent, a young lady in a tank top. “And put on a sweater please.” Elementary schools can access the Yorktown Dailies live cable broadcast, and sometimes they complain about inappropriate attire.

Seconds later, Ratchford was calmly fixing a teleprompter glitch while coaching a student on the correct pronunciation of Bowdoin College.

“I’ve never seen Mrs. Ratchford angry,” says Katie Mountain, a student in her second year of TV studio. “She knows how to control kids very well. She lets them run with whatever they’re good at.”

Chief among the many skills Ratchford has perfected in her 50 years of teaching (30 of them at Yorktown) is empowering students with that elusive balance of freedom within limits. “I want all the kids to feel they’re worthwhile and have much to contribute,” she says.

Usually, she lets her students talk for a few minutes after the opening bell to “promote a climate of collegiality and friendliness.” With a lively and anecdotal style, she weaves vivid illustrations into her instruction and peppers her language with sound effects, such as an imitation of a guitar riff. She might note the dark vocabulary in The Scarlet Letter and then segue to broader observations about forgiveness in literature and in life.

“Everything’s a lesson … an opportunity,” she says. “I like showing kids the ways you can see patterns and commonalities in human thinking.”

Such observations have served Ratchford well in her life as a teacher and as a politician’s wife. She met Bill, her husband of 53 years, who died last year, as an undergrad at the University of Connecticut (she holds bachelor’s degrees in English and psychology, and a master’s in journalism). Bill went on to win elections to the Connecticut General Assembly, where he became speaker of the House. He moved to Arlington in 1978, when he was elected to the first of three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. She followed in 1981.

Those political years “were an amazing addition to my storehouse of knowledge and very exciting,” Ratchford says, emphasizing the positive. At the same time, she concedes that the nonstop schedule and lack of privacy were stressful—not to mention the fact that her husband’s district was never “safe” for re-election.

“I can’t tell you how many nights we’d go to three different events and miss dinner at every one,” she laughs. “We’d end up at HoJo’s at 1:30 a.m.”

Her teaching life, while slightly less glamorous, was no less profound. Describing herself as “on the front lines,” Ratchford recalls a day when one of her students in Connecticut was “acting strangely and saying funny things at school.” After the last bell rang, Ratchford had an uneasy feeling about the girl and dropped by her house to check on her. When the girl came to the door, it was clear she had experimented with cutting her wrists with a razor. Ratchford was able to call the girl’s parents and get her the help she needed.

Over the years, teachers have been asked to do more and more outside the domain of their training, she says, such as giving talks on AIDS and counseling kids through the psychological fallout of increased academic pressures.

“School is tougher than it used to be, and the kids are overworked,” she says, noting the current push for advanced placement courses in the race to fill a limited number of spots at elite colleges.

Although Ratchford looks at least a decade younger than her 75 years, her legacy belies her age. Many of her former students have stayed in contact with her decades after turning in their last term paper—among them, a Fulbright scholar, a reporter for Newsweek, two filmmakers and a comic-book creator. A former “TV kid” let her know he’s writing music now. Another recent graduate wrote to thank her for encouraging him to think more deeply than he had before.

During one of Ratchford’s recent trips to the supermarket, a checkout clerk ran from behind the counter to give her former teacher a big hug, confessing that she wished she’d listened to her in class and gone to college.

All three of Ratchford’s sons have followed her footsteps into education. Two are teachers, and one recently moved from teaching into a principal’s position.

But she isn’t one to rest on her laurels. If anything, she still considers her life’s work unfinished.

“I never end a school year without thinking I’ve been awful and I have to do it better,” she says. “I’m always thinking about what I want to do better.”

Amy Brecount White lives in Arlington and teaches writing at a school in Takoma Park, Md.

Categories: People