By: Professor Abigail L. Perdue, Wake Forest University School of Law
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” – 1 Cor. 13:1
Mary Lycans Asbury was a force to be reckoned with. A petite woman slight of frame with dark, curly hair, she was the perfect blend of soft and hard, kind but exacting. On my first day of second grade, she entered our classroom adorned in a stunning, A-line white dress bedecked with bright pink roses. (Even more impressive, I would later learn she had sewn it herself.)
Mrs. Asbury’s classroom was as pink as the beautiful roses on her dress. The summer before, she had worked tirelessly to redesign and redecorate what would have otherwise been quite a dull setting. Now the walls were the color of bubble gum, and lush green plants and bright décor festooned the shelves. Even better, she had painstakingly created colorful bulletin board decorations from scratch. Each contained a memorable message that was educational, inspirational, or both. My favorites were the plump, smiling bumblebees that advised us, “Don’t worry. Bee Happy.” Put simply, Mrs. Asbury’s classroom was a wonderland of her own making — a warm and welcoming environment that inspired kindness, camaraderie, and creative thinking. The fact that she had gone above and beyond to design this learning oasis demonstrated how passionate she was about teaching and more importantly, about us.
But don’t let the pink fool you. Mrs. Asbury also cared enough to give her students a push when we needed it. She often had more faith in us than we had in ourselves. She helped us, encouraged us, and disciplined us, always putting our best interests ahead of her own. She was the most dedicated teacher I have ever known.
For this reason, Mrs. Asbury suffered no laziness or disrespect. When supervising us on the playground, she placed both hands on her hips like Wonder Woman. All it took was one look from her for silence to ripple through our classroom. She was confident, capable, and powerful. In her classroom kingdom, she reigned supreme. She didn’t ask us to behave; she expected it. And she never hesitated to correct us as needed. I’m forever grateful that she did.
As a result of her no-nonsense approach, Mrs. Asbury had earned a reputation as tough but fair. She set high expectations for us so that we could rise to meet them – or at least grow exponentially in the attempt. She worried far less about “teaching to the test” and far more about teaching us to be decent, well-rounded human beings, even if that meant supplementing the curriculum. She challenged us to read out of fourth and fifth grade level textbooks, to spell four syllable words, and to complete timed multiplication exams without the use of any notes or calculators, all because she knew we could. She gave us the tools and encouragement we needed to reach our full potential.
In many instances, former students returned years later to thank Mrs. Asbury for her passion, discipline, and dedication. When she passed away unexpectedly in 2008, they attended her funeral in droves; many others sent notes and flowers. A sheepish young man newly released from jail explained that if every one of his teachers had been as tough, caring, and devoted as Mrs. Asbury, then his life might have turned out very differently. Her former students’ collective sentiments made one thing abundantly clear – good teachers touch lives, but great teachers change them. And Mrs. Asbury was the greatest of them all.
I have always had a passion for learning and helping others. But in large part because of Mrs. Asbury, the wisdom she imparted, and the fine example she set, I applied for my first teaching position only a few months after she died. Almost a decade later, I have never looked back. I am so incredibly grateful to have the most meaningful job in the world, and not a day goes by that the words and spirit of Mrs. Asbury don’t impact some aspect of my teaching. Indeed, her philosophy and unceasing dedication drive everything I do from putting my students first to challenging them to meet my high expectations. I even decorate my door to make incoming students feel as welcome as I did on my first day of second grade! She is the best teacher I have ever had. I loved Mrs. Asbury, and she loved all of us. More than anything else, Love is her legacy. I hope it is mine too.