Small in Size, Great in Stature: A Salute to Miss Roth
Who is this “Miss Roth”? She is both petite and diminutive in stature – barely more than five feet tall, and somewhat gnarled now, at the age of 93 [in 2017]. Her eyes are bright and intelligent, with an underlying glimmer of mirth and goodwill. She speaks with an authority that belies her size, and she’s always ready to talk about the latest book just added to her prodigious reading list (she has concentrated heavily, over the years, on her favorite historical figure: Winston Churchill).
She is a teacher. Her career traversed interesting times, beginning as it did in September, 1942. She was the only teacher at Lowe School, a one-room schoolhouse out on 92nd Street south of Alto, Michigan. She had just completed a two-year teaching program at what is now Western Michigan University. She was seventeen.
Her students were the couple of dozen kids who lived in the area. Some just had to cross the road from their farm; others walked maybe two miles along the unpaved roads to get to school. The first to arrive might light the stove to take the chill out of the winter air in the building. They ranged in age from first graders to eighth. The older kids were just a couple of years younger than their teacher.
They still remember her with fierce fondness. Recently I was witness to a gathering to celebrate the enduring bond between Betty and her “kids”—some of whom are now in their mid-eighties. About 15 students from those two first two years of her teaching career came together on a sunny June day to honor the 75th anniversary of their time at Lowe School. The group was lively, spirited, enthusiastic–and devoted to their “Miss Roth,” better known to legions of former students as Betty Yeiter, who went on to teach for Lowell Schools until her retirement in 1984.
As people arrived, a chorus of different conversations arose. Old friends (and, in many cases, siblings) revisited old times and some introduced spouses to childhood buddies. Then a remarkable thing happened. Without raising her voice, but somehow asserting a clear and impressive authority, Betty invited everyone to take a seat at the large table. As I watched, this group of elders, most of them probably great-grandparents themselves, transformed back into Betty’s kids. She asked them to go around the table and speak a bit about how the one-room schoolhouse experience had helped shape their lives. The rules were implicit (once a couple of spouses caught on): listen to each other, respectfully. Wait your turn. Share.
While the stories about the special nature of a one-room school might be somewhat predictable, the intensity of their bond was beautifully palpable. People leaned in, nodded agreement, paid attention. Somehow, even 75 years later, Betty Roth held sway over them with an aura of expectation that they would behave and cooperate and help the littler kids and just do the right thing. One gentleman shared that it was in Miss Roth’s classroom that he learned to challenge himself, as a third grader, to try to do the math problems that the fifth graders were working on—thus honing skills that transcended a passing grade. Others spoke of playground etiquette, the outhouse, learning to get along, and getting drinking water from the farmhouse across the street.
After two years, Betty was hired by Lowell Schools, got married, things changed. She was famous in her zeal as a reading specialist for igniting a love for learning in her students. And yet, as one of her “kids” said at the 75th reunion, “I didn’t know Miss Roth was a legend. I just thought she was cool.”
Betty is still cool like that. What an honor, to witness the respect still held by her former students. Everyone should be so lucky to come across such a person, especially one who holds that most-important role: teacher.
Dedicated to all young teachers with the fire to be like Betty, especially my friend Kaitlin Popielarz.