In the early 1970’s I had the best 4th Grade Teacher in all the world! Growing up in the Collins Garden neighborhood, most of the families were Hispanic. James Raymond Lewis, Sr. aka “Mr. Lewis” was one of the school’s two black teachers. (Ms. Pierce was the school’s music teacher). Mr. Lewis had an impact on me, my two brothers, and my oldest sister, Becky, who became a colleague of his while teaching at Collins Garden Elementary.
I will never forget the time when my twin brother George and I were assigned to his fourth-grade class. He was my brother Edward’s teacher three years prior. Mr. Lewis called me out and said, “I know your brother Edward and now George. You don’t seem anything like your brothers!” From that day forward, who would have thought that Mr. Lewis would be the teacher that would influence me, encourage me, and teach me more than the three “Rs” (reading, writing, arithmetic).
Mr. Lewis knew our learning weaknesses, our potential, and our strengths. My brother George said that he remembers how Mr. Lewis took time to help him with his reading and worked with him to improve his reading skills and comprehension.
Mr. Lewis was a great educator, but also a great influence in demonstrating good ethics and moral values. He taught his students responsibility, respect, and discipline. At times he would have us hold a heavy six-inch hardcover Webster dictionary in each hand, stretched-out in front of the class until he said to put them down. This would be considered abuse these days, but it taught us never to repeat the offense again. He had our respect and our attention.
He oversaw the school’s Traffic Patrol. I became a “Patrol” (aka crossing guard) that year, and I learned about accountability. I had to arrive very early (7:00 a.m.) and stay after school when our shift ended. This was my very first school activity. I was so proud to be a Patrol. Mr. Lewis promoted me to Captain the next year. This was my first leadership role! [Oh, how I loved wearing the bright orange belt and badge!!]. This was a big deal to me!
There was another side of Mr. Lewis that we all witnessed, and that was his sense of humor, his loud laugh and the biggest Texas smile you ever did see!! To me, he was the icon of Collins Garden. Everybody knew Mr. Lewis, and any kid who had him as a teacher, knew they were in for a great learning experience. He never lapsed in his teaching methods. He made my last two years of elementary memorable because he was everybody’s friend, a great male role model and “uncle” to us kids. He had a genuine love and devotion for teaching! He taught at Collins Garden for 31 years. Even after I moved on to junior high and high school, I never forgot him. I would visit him on campus to catch up on my way home from high school. He would tell me “don’t pay attention to those boys – they’re nothing but trouble.” I guess that was his way of trying to protect me as I became a young lady.
My oldest sister, Becky, began her teaching career at Collins Garden in 1984. She became great friends with Mr. Lewis. She remembers that Mr. Lewis had teachers laughing, especially when they were under stress. “He was a remarkable role model to his colleagues in how to get the job done.” The curriculum was different in those days and teaching methods have changed. She said that what she remembers most of Mr. Lewis is that “his focus was his students.”
In 1999, when he retired from teaching, I was given the opportunity to attend his retirement party given by the school district (SAISD). I was glad to give my final salute to my favorite teacher Mr. Lewis. I shared with the audience my sincere and tearful gratitude for the huge impact he had on me while under his wing. He laid the foundation for the rest of my school years. He’s the teacher you never forget. This would be the last time I would see him before his death in December 2007.
I am grateful that Black History Month gave me this chance to reflect and remember Mr. James Raymond Lewis, Sr. I never saw him as a black man. I saw him as the best teacher at Collins Garden.