Matthews, who has taught at VRMS for the past seven years, actually first stepped to the head of her own class in 1960 in Troy City, Ala., before desegregation had taken place in the state. Eight years later, she was one of the first African-American teachers to be chosen to teach in an integrated school.
“It’s amazing to think back at that time,” she said. “We had great seminars and workshops preparing us for integration so that it would work well. They selected certain teachers to go into schools that they thought would work well with this transition and I was chosen.”
Matthews retired from Alabama after 36 years and bought what was to be a vacation home on a Carroll County lake because she likes to fish. However, her love of teaching was still too ingrained and after her realtor told her she was too young to retire she secured a job at Bay Springs Middle School.
“I didn’t plan to teach again when I came to Georgia,” she said. “I bought a lake house here to vacation in because I had a beautiful home in Montgomery that I still have because I always thought I’d go back, but after awhile being here I made Georgia my home.”
After a year at BSMS, she thought she might retire again. However, when she found out that Temple Middle School was looking for a language arts teacher she decided to take the job. She spent three years at TMS before leaving to work at Villa Rica Middle School.
“It’s almost like ‘The Godfather,’” she said. “Every time I tried to leave they pulled me back in, but I wasn’t ready to give it up. I just thought I was ready.”
Seven years after taking the job at Villa Rica Middle School — and 11 years after retiring the first time — Matthews said this time she’s really ready to retire.
“I love doing this, I really do,” she said. “But I want to travel, I want to fish, I want to have my coffee at 8 o’clock instead of 6. There will never be a day when I don’t want to teach, but I’ll always be teaching something, even if it’s just the world and life experiences. I intend to teach whoever I come in contact with because I don’t know how to stop.”
Matthews said it was the students who kept drawing her back to teaching even though she could have retired nearly two decades ago with a full pension.
“I found there was so much the children didn’t know about their past, who they were and the world itself,” she said. “I would ask questions and they would have no clue, and I thought I could fill in the gaps for them. Having taught that many years and having been so many places around the world, I thought I had so much prime experience I could bring to them.”
Though she’s taught everything from first grade to eighth grade during her nearly five decades in the classroom, her favorite subject to teach is literature. The fact that she could teach language arts and literature at Bay Springs Middle, Temple Middle and Villa Rica Middle is one reason she taught another 11 years beyond her original retirement from Alabama.
“I love literature and I was given the opportunity to teach something I enjoy,” she said. “I would write poems, read my poems and let the students write poems. That interaction was so great and I realized I love to teach because I love to see them learn. When they discover something, I love to see it in their faces. Plus the little notes from students saying ‘I love you’ and all that helped too.”
Matthews has seen a world of change in all her years in a classroom — both positive and negative — but rather dwell on what is, what was and what could have been, she looks at each year with fondness for what it taught her.
“It’s not even the same world from when I started to now. It’s hard to describe because it’s hard to compare different generations,” she said.
Her most recent retirement will actually be her first real break since before she started school as a little girl — though she did take off a total of four school years when she had children. When she graduated high school, she started college the following week. She graduated college in three years by attending school year-round and the dean of her school recommended her for a teaching job and she started two weeks after graduation.
“I come from four generations of teachers,” she said. “I didn’t have much of a choice; I was going to be a teacher. Then, when I did, I found out I actually enjoyed it.”
In keeping with her plans to continue teaching outside of the classroom, Matthews walks away this week with parting advice to current and future teachers.
“If I could give advice to future teachers, I’d say, ‘READ!’” she said. “Stay abreast of current, local, national and world events; not just the subject being taught. Encourage students to read, to think, and to question everything. Make the past and the present relevant, while teaching for the future.”