Farewell to a great teacher
F ifty years ago, I was a student in Beth Gavin’s senior biology class. But she wasn’t there. Olive Berry had come out of retirement to substitute during the fall semester while Mrs. Gavin was having her third child, her son, Tom.
We noted the birth in the student newspaper, “Devil’s Chatter,” adding cheekily: “How’s that for knowing your subject matter?”
Soon came the directive to destroy all copies of the issue and reprint it without that offending line.
Mrs. Gavin thought the handwringing was ridiculous. That was, by far, not the raciest thing she’d heard in years of teaching teenagers about reproduction and evolution.
“They all thought I was an atheist,” she recalled of first teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. (In fact, she was a Methodist.) Of her frank approach to teaching about sex, she said: “This is real life. This is what happens. And it’s not to be ignored or hidden. It just is.”
Mrs. Gavin brought that same matter-of-fact approach to all of the topics she taught over the decades at Holmes County High School — primarily 10th grade biology, where I first experienced her firm control of both her subject matter and her classroom.
She’d already helped write the textbook we used, plus several others. She instructed us in the rigor of the scientific method as she guided the science projects we created and presented at regional, state and international science fairs.
Her approval did not come easily. She drilled into us that we were just as able as students who came from bigger schools and fancier families in tonier towns.
She expected us to grow up. She even took a lucky few of us on school trips out into the world beyond Holmes County, insisting we learn to behave properly, and adventurously.
“I was what other people might call ‘loose,’ but I thought that was all right,” she told me toward the end of her life as we recalled a memorable trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair in New Orleans when I was 16. “I do know that I have done some things wrong. But, then again, I wouldn’t undo them. You have to be exposed.”
She got me into summer science programs, where I lived and learned with other, smarter high school students from around the country. She led me toward college at Florida State, 100 miles away in Tallahassee, rather than staying home for junior college.
“There’s a bigger world,” she would tell me.
And the encouragement didn’t stop when I graduated from high school. I had a friend and supporter for life. There were regular notes and birthday cards. And I’d better not be spotted back home in Esto without stopping for a visit with her.
She had a long retirement with her husband, Bill Tom, in the house they built just across the dirt road from his family home, not far from her mother’s home at Highway 2 and Gavin Road. As she aged, she kept her faith in medicine. When surgery was required, she said, “I believe in science.”
A few days into the new year, at age 84, Maggie Elizabeth Penton Gavin died. She will be much missed and long remembered by her family and friends and the hundreds of students whose minds she shaped.
She had three biological children: Gayla, Jennifer and Tom. But I always felt that Martha Cullifer Howell and I were a close fourth and fifth. Of Martha, she said, “I love her — I feel like she’s my oldest daughter,” while showing off a mug Martha brought proclaiming her Big Bad Bitchy Beth.
“Write, call, come see me before I die!” she wrote in a birthday card for my 64th birthday. “I love my oldest son very much and miss you.” During one of our last visits she told me: “What matters to me are my children and certain students. Whatever they do, I love them.”
We loved you, too, Beth. You were a great teacher, in the broadest possible sense of the word. One more time: Thank you. Rest in peace.