A TEACHER FOR MANY YEARS, 99-YEAR-OLD MILDRED “GRAN” BELL HAS BEEN A VERY SPECIAL PART OF MANY STUDENTS’ EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES
by LISA PORTERFIELD THOMPSON
By 19 years old, Mildred “Gran” Bell was teaching her very own classroom full of third graders in England, Arkansas, a community about 35 miles southeast of Little Rock. Not long before she began teaching, she was a student herself at England High School.
Mildred was born in 1919, to a surgeon, one of England’s four medical doctors at the time. The small town had experienced a huge boom of population in the early 1900s, growing its residents by over 300% in 20 years. As Mildred described it, England was becoming very famous at the time.
Mildred recalls watching her father make house calls and help people in distress. He was very protective of her, and so often she waited in the front seat of his car while he delivered babies. One evening, her father sent someone out to call her inside. He needed her help. “He told me to dunk the baby, in the cold, cold water, and then the warm water,” she remembers. “Back and forth, over and over. Eventually, that baby, who wasn’t breathing, started gasping and crying. He saved that baby’s life, and that man grew up and lived and was at my father’s funeral. I was always a Daddy’s girl.”
England was a railroad town, and when Mildred was finishing up her senior year of high school a recruiter from Central College came to see her father and tried to recruit her to play basketball for the school. She ended up attending the college in Conway, Arkansas, and was trained to become a teacher.
At such a young age, Mildred moved back to her hometown to begin a teaching career that would expand more than eight decades and touch thousands of hearts across three states. She could not have possibly known the impact she would have, or the legacy she would leave, but undoubtedly, she was an extraordinaire, even from the beginning.
At the time, training to become a teacher was a two-year program, but from the very beginning, Mildred was a lifelong learner. She recruited enough fellow teachers to convince the college to send a representative to England to hold courses and help herself and other teachers earn a bachelor’s degree. She spent time writing postcards and talking with other teachers who she knew could benefit from an advanced degree, and eventually got agreements from enough interested people to form a class. “I found 15 other ladies who wanted to get their four-year degrees,” she said. “They told me I was their best recruiter.” Certainly, she has always been a supporter of education.
Mildred married her husband, Borden Ezra Bell Sr., in 1937. He was a John Deere dealer and sold cotton pickers, tractors, and combines in the farming communities in the Arkansas delta. Not long after the two married, they had a son, Borden, who was born in 1942. A daughter would soon follow, Debbie.
Mildred recalls a time early on in her career when she knew that our nation and schools were changing. “My principal came to me one day and told me that we had three school board members visiting at lunch, and she didn’t think the daily prayer I had my students say before eating would be necessary that day,” she said. “I think she was worried that the board members wouldn’t approve.
“I just said ‘thank you, Miss Piper’ and went on my way. That day at lunch my whole class sat down at the table, just like we did every day, and the students started into their regular routine. The children would each take turns saying the blessing. The ones who didn’t pray at home had learned to sit at the end of the table so they could listen to what the others said and know how to pray. This day was no different. At the end of our prayer, those three board members came and gave me a big hug and thanked me for teaching the children to pray. Even though they’d already eaten, they sat down at our table and decided they were hungry enough to eat again. I never did tell Miss Piper that I was the one who helped those school board members get elected to begin with.”
Mildred taught in small and large Arkansas communities, including England, Humnoke, Earle, and West Memphis, completed a stint in Columbia, Tennessee, and eventually retired and moved to Texarkana in 1980. It was then that her teaching adventure took a brand new direction.
Almost as soon as she moved to the community, Mildred started receiving calls to substitute teach. She would get calls at 5 a.m. asking her to come and fill in for the day, often getting called by more than one district every day. She took whichever class was offered first each day and substituted at Pleasant Grove, Texas High, and Arkansas High. The students loved her.
During her substitute career, Mildred sometimes filled in classrooms where one of her four grandchildren went to school. Thus, she earned the nickname “Gran.” Still, when she is out around town with her son or daughter-in-law, many people will come up and hug her neck. They will ask her family how she is doing, and always fondly recall “Gran” as their favorite teacher. It is easy to see students from all walks of life, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures regard her as a very special part of their educational experience.
Eventually, Mildred attempted to retire again, this time giving up her substitute jobs. It did not take long before she was recruited to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at the federal prison. Small, petite, mild- mannered “Gran” checked in and was processed each day, to enter the federal prison where many inmates awaited. “I never once was scared,” she said. “The kids worried about me, and I think the wardens and guards worried about me, but if I could handle a classroom full of sixth grade boys, certainly I could handle some grown men.”
Mildred taught at the prison for 14 years, leading the nation in graduates from her courses, and spending many, many hours and her own money to ensure her students were learning English. “I enjoyed working,” she said. “The only reason I had to stop was because of my health.”
Mildred “Gran” Bell remembers fondly her time as an educator, but she is also concerned about the future of our country and our education system. “They’ve got to get God back in the schools,” she said. “When I was born and growing up, our society was moral and God- conscious. Things are just different now.”
On February 20, 2019, Mildred will celebrate her 100th birthday. She insists her 90th birthday party was big enough, and that celebrating her centennial is not necessary. Whether there is a party or not, the Texarkana community has been blessed immeasurably to have Mildred “Gran” Bell as part of it for the last 38 years.