Forty years ago, Annie Mair sat in Grace McDowell’s ninth-grade math class at Garnet-Patterson Middle School and calculated algebra problems.
“She was always very impressive to me,” said Mrs. Mair, now principal of Cleveland Elementary School, looking back fondly on the teacher who taught her to solve math problems.
“Since then, whenever I have a problem I have to solve, I always wish I knew where Mrs. McDowell was and what she would do,” said the school administrator, who credits her former teacher for leading her to a career in education.
Last week, she got her wish.
Mrs. Mair had a long-awaited reunion with the 99-year-old Mrs. McDowell at her home in the Fairmont Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Another former student, Freddie Vaughns, principal of Fletcher Johnson Elementary School, went along with Mrs. Mair.
“It is a joy to see her again,” said Mrs. Mair, who sat next to her former teacher.
Mrs. Mair and Mr. Vaughns got the chance to tell Mrs. McDowell what a great influence she has been.
For Mrs. McDowell, the reunion was a time for reminiscing about the 30 years she taught math until her retirement in 1971.
“I liked teaching,” she said. “It was easy. I liked the students.”
Mrs. McDowell entered teaching after her principal at Dunbar High School asked her to teach a class temporarily in 1919.
“I liked math and said yes,” she recalled. “I did it for a week and liked it, too, especially the $5 a day.”
She liked the work and the students, the math teacher said.
“I had no problem with discipline. They would give me the ‘bad’ students, and I would straighten them out,” she said.
“Those students dreaded me at first until they found out that I liked them. I let them know they were important, that they were human beings, and that they could get math. Then I would make them do it.”
Mr. Vaughns is one student she made get it and he is forever grateful.
“She taught me math,” he said, sitting in Mrs. McDowell’s living room. “She also gave me the passion to give back. That’s why I am a principal today.”
He said what made this particular teacher special was her caring attitude.
“She was a genuine human being who really cared about each and every one of us in the classroom … something [that is] missing today,” he said.
“This was the era before integration and she was one of those who was concerned about black children and that we would be on par with everyone else academically. Now, teachers are too hung up on prestige and money. She’s a hero.”
More years might have passed without this reunion if it hadn’t been for Mrs. McDowell’s niece, Grace Stephenson, who asked Mrs. Mair to pick up plants from her aunt’s house that had been donated to Cleveland Elementary School.
“She asked me my aunt’s name and realized it was her old teacher,” said Mrs. Stephenson.
“She just screamed, ‘She’s alive,’ then started sobbing. She said, ‘Oh, that was my favorite teacher. I have got to see her.’ ”
Soon afterward, Mrs. Mair called former classmates including four District of Columbia school administrators and told them the news “Mrs. McDowell is alive.”
A few weeks later, the visits to the pastel Fairmont Heights home began and, Mrs. Mair says, they will continue.
Mrs. McDowell expressed amazement that her former students found her and their surprise that she was still alive.
“I’m just 99 years old,” she said. “I’m still here. They thought I had gone.”
Not this feisty teacher who continues to tutor math to youngsters.
“I remember this woman who had such an impact on me,” said Mr. Vaughns. “She’s the reason I do what I do now. I don’t know if teachers today realize how much an impression they make on the rest of a child’s life.”