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Betty Ann Armstrong, Beloved Teacher

A story by Jean McGavin

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Photo Credit: James Madison Elementary School

The email chain below resulted from the announcement of the death of Betty Ann Armstrong, who taught 5th and 6th grade at James Madison Elementary School, in Arlington, Virginia. Most of these students were in her class in 1963 and 1964. Reading the responses you can not miss the strong affection held for Mrs. Armstrong. I hope that any teacher reading this will take heart in knowing that a great teacher does indeed touch the souls of their pupils, and all that hard work is not in vain.


Elizabeth Rabil Armstrong, March 30, 1935 - September 7, 2016

From Charlie Clark:

Our fifth and sixth-grade teacher (for many of us) Betty Ann Armstrong died last night about 8:00 at her longtime Arlington home, under hospice care for lung cancer. Her friend Joan Hitt, who's been caring for her, told me just tonight.

There will be a viewing and services next Thursday and Friday. Her sister Pat Richards, of Alexandria, will put a death notice in The Washington Post with details. Her other sister Madeleine Rabel, who also taught at James Madison Elementary, is around but too ill herself to attend the service. Ronnie Gosnell and I had lunch with Betty Ann about two years ago. End of an era!

Charlie Clark
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From: Ronnie Gosnell
Sep 8 at 8:34 PM
OMG so sad. She was absolutely my favorite teacher.
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Jennifer Larson
I cannot bring to mind one single item of our 5th grade curriculum, but I will never, ever forget Miss Armstrong.  She had my admiration and respect, long before the incident involving our hilarious plan to all drop something in the middle of class at exactly the same time.  I don’t remember exactly how she handled that, or anything else except for the Kennedy Assassination (which she did with aplomb despite being clearly very upset herself).......but she was always in charge, and somehow she conveyed to us that it was right that she be in charge.
 
Thank you for this sad news, Charlie; and condolences to her family from a grateful student of 50+ years ago.
 
Jennifer Larson
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Charlie Clark
Sep 8 at 9:57 PM
Beautifully stated
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Jean McGavin
To
Lee McGavin
Sep 8 at 10:18 PM
I thought you might want to see this.
Love,
jean
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Lee McGavin
To
JEAN MCGAVIN
Sep 8 at 10:31 PM
my fifth grade teacher, miss rabel at the time, told the girls that I had bedroom eyes. never heard the end of that.
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Jean McGavin
To
Lee
Sep 8 at 11:36 PM
that is very funny! I am sure you hated that!
She was wonderful. everyone loved her and was intimidated by her.
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Jean McGavin
Sep 9 at 12:12 AM
I remember that incident with the dropping very well! I seem to think I had something to do with that event. I remember that Linda McGehee ratted us out moments before it happened and my recollection is that Mrs. Armstrong then stormed out of the room.  But I had the feeling that she actually went out in the hallway to laugh and came back after she had composed herself enough to act appropriately stern.

I also remember that we studied the Civil War and had a bulletin board that was a sort of map/diagram of a plantation.

We also had a science table area at the front of the room right in front of a stage (???).

She was my favorite teacher. She made me feel that each of us mattered and I remember that her class and all we studied was fun and interesting.

She was tall and beautiful and imposing and inspiring and I am so sad to hear about her death.

Thank you for sharing this Charlie.
Jean McGavin
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Charlie Clark
Sep 9 at 6:52 AM
You are quite the story teller!
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Ron Gosnell
To: Charlie Clark

Sep 9 at 7:45 AM
She is and yes I remember that incident too - funny you remember such crazy things and yes Jean YOU were the brainchild of that rebellious act. I also remember duck and cover drills in basement hallway and Betty Anne playing kick ball with us at recess! Great memories! 😃
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Jean McGavin
To: Ron Gosnell Charlie Clark

Sep 9 at 10:09 AM
Interesting that we staged this insurrection in a class whose teacher we liked so much. I don't remember the motivation. Perhaps it was just budding and awkward adulthood and independence that we felt was fostered in her class.

I don't remember her playing kick ball with us. How wonderful that she did! I am sure she killed it!

I doubt we could amass such memories from any other class. She was singular.
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Tommy Clark
Sep 9 at 10:24 AM
I didn't have Ms. Armstrong, but I remember her very well, including a clear memory of her playing kickball--she was impressively good!

I did have her sister, Ms Rabil (sp?) for 5th grade, in the classroom directly above Ms. Armstrong's.  Another memory is of the time we acted out enough to make Ms Rabil cry and leave the room. Ms. Armstrong came back and read us the riot act in a very effective way--I can still recall the feeling; something like--"oh this is how authority works."

May she rest in peace.

Tommy Clark
James Madison, Class of '63
Williamsburg Jr. High, Class of '66
Yorktown High, Class of '69
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Fred Gosnell
Sep 9 at 10:24 AM
Betty Ann not only played kickball with us - she was faster than everyone in the class, even in her sensible shoes! I remember her racing us in short sprints across the blacktop in back of Madison.  
She ALWAYS wore her hair up, even later when I knew her as a reading specialist for ACPS, and when I would visit her and her husband Darryl at home. I always wondered how long her hair actually was....
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Charlie Clark
Sep 9 at 10:41 AM
BTW, when my daughter was a student at U. of South Carolina, we would drive down there and lunch in Betty Ann's hometown of Weldon, N.C., eating at Ralph's barbecue. It has been there since the 1940s, and I once asked the waitress if she recalled Rabel's grocery store, where the future Mrs. Armstrong hung out, and she did!—c
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Marsha Schuyler
Sep 9 at 11:19 AM
I have seen Mrs Armstrong a few times over the year as she was friends with members of my church and my "teacher" friends. She was always lovely and gracious. A true Steel Magnolia. The time I remember is the one day she was late. She had car trouble- this was our second year in the combination class. We had all come in and started work, eventually getting  a message from the office that Mrs Armstrong would be late. When she came rushing in the door she stopped and saw us all working away and she got tears eyed. I was So glad we were behaving. Nothing was better than pleasing her and gaining he respect.  As you said we all adored her and she gave us so much. She always called us ladies and and gentlemen which was a great lesson in respecting those you teach and manage, she taught us to love reading - remember how she would read to us after lunch. I still remember her reading The Pearl. She taught us to teach ourselves and to keep learning and she let us believe that  our passions and dreams (at age 10/11/11) were real. Charlie said he wanted to be a writer and he is, Tyler said he wanted to be a journalist as with so many others. I will never forget her and believe I am so blessed to have been with her for 2 years.

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Tyler Mathisen
To
JEAN MCGAVIN Charlie Clark
Sep 9 at 11:30 AM
This is sad news indeed. The passing of a generation.
 
Yesterday my son came home with his first fifth grade assignment. Part of it is to have each parent write their reminiscences about their fifth-grade experience. Mine was with Mrs. Armstrong, and I was thinking about her just last night. She was, easily and by far, the best and most memorable teacher I encountered in the Arlington Schools. Sure, Mrs. Cambpell was wonderful in second grade, and Walter Taylor was a magnificent math teacher in seventh. And what could be more memorable than Witcher Beverly’s toupe? But Betty Ann Armstrong was unique. And it wasn’t just the height of the hair or the length of the fingernails. It was how she commanded that classroom, which my year was a split grade with some sixth graders I came to know and admire (like Charlie, Lyndon, Willie, Steve, Ron Gosnell, Marsha and many more). I know those sixth graders better now, so my admiration has been, um, seasoned over the years! She was a great teacher with a larger-than-life presence and a wonderful touch – firm but not too firm, good humored and so clearly intelligent. She scared the daylights out of me at first, as most good teachers do. But then, and quickly, she became my favorite. I’m saddened to hear she’s gone. Thanks for sharing the news with me.
Tyler Mathisen
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Willie Muse
To: Tyler Mathisen
Sep 9 at 12:11 PM
Tyler, your judgement is more acute after these many years.
We "grizzled veteran" sixth graders appreciate your (now corrected) vision of us.  What truly says it all is that there remain dozens of us, now in our 60's
that still remember and take the time to praise an individual that had a profound impact on us all.  If it is true that one's legacy is those that you leave behind. . . .Mrs. Armstrong's spot at the top of the list is assured..
Good to hear from all of you!
Charlie thanks for keeping us in the loop.
Willie Muse
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Lyndon Carter
Sep 9 at 2:09 PM
Although this is a sad time, it is wonderful to hear from you all and your fond recollections of someone who touched us deeply.  A couple of things that stick out for me was our studying the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and our field trip to Ford's Theater and I think the room he died in.  Also, the time the guys tried to see if Mrs. Armstrong could dunk a basketball on the outside courts.  I think if she had tennis shoes on rather than high heels she could have done it.

Take care,

Lyndon

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Tyler Mathisen
Sep 9 at 4:01 PM
I'm in. I have a photo of her, Linda McGee, Row Tucker and me doing an art story-telling exercise in 5th grade; it was published in the Northern Virginia Sun. She also liked to tell the story in later life about Tyler's mother coming in to confront her about being too hard on young Tyler, who apparently wasn't working hard enough. "Mrs. Mathisen, how long have you been teaching?" Betty Ann asked. The two became friendly, and Tyler went on to,, well, I can't recall--- (not!).