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Front Porch: Celebrating teachers throughout history

This is National Teacher Appreciation Week, and I would like to participate by paying tribute to a very special teacher I knew – Golden Jane (Paddock) Pettit, my mother-in-law.

I have a no idea what she was like in the classroom, as I only got to know her after she retired. This self-effacing rule-following lady crossed swords with history, and I could never think of her as anything other than a hero teacher after she told me about that one moment in her career.

She was born in rural Wisconsin in 1903, the second youngest among a large group of siblings. She had wisps of strawberry blond hair at birth, the only one in her family with that hair color, and so, her parents named her Golden. She did not marry young, so to support herself, she entered a profession socially acceptable for young ladies at the time, that of teacher. She taught in Wisconsin while attending Whitewater Teachers College to earn her full teaching credentials, with her older brothers helping pay tuition.

Later on, clearly destined to be a spinster school marm (she was into her 30s, after all), she rented a room in a boarding house for women in Charles City, Iowa, where she taught, and where the proprietress also provided meals for some of the men who worked in that town. The men came in through the back door and ate in the kitchen, while the ladies ate in the dining room. No mingling was allowed.

One man – younger than her by eight years – caught a glimpse of the attractive red-head in the dining room and wangled a conversation, then a date. In due course they married, and a year after that, Golden gave birth to a daughter. Five years later, their son arrived. She was 40 by then, and they all moved to Alaska, where her husband had signed a contract to work on a military base north of Anchorage.

Their son, I should mention, would later attend the University of Florida, where he spotted me, and I took note of that cute reddish-blond-headed guy looking my way. That was nearly 60 years ago. And he’s still cute.

In the early years of our marriage, as I got to know my mother-in-law better after they moved to Spokane, she would tell me stories of her growing up, of teaching, of her family and her husband’s. She firmly believed that it was the women who were the keepers of family history, so she shared with me. I was happy to hear the stories.

One of them about knocked me over, especially because it intersects with one of my most dearly held things – libraries and access to books – and also because it seems so startling that this serious, law-abiding, pretty-traditional-for-the-times woman should ever find herself in trouble.

She attended Methodist church services on Sundays, saw her husband as head of the household, stayed home to raise their children (doing some substitute teaching, but only returning to teaching full time when her youngest graduated from high school), voted in every election and ensured that grace was said at the dinner table.

She was no rebel. It would never occur to her to disobey a law or to be disingenuous.

Here’s the story. She told me that when she was in her early 20s, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Wisconsin, a student raised his hand in class and asked something to the effect of, “Is it true that God didn’t put us on earth the way we are, but that we come from monkeys?”

Although she wasn’t date-specific about the incident, it must have been around 1925, when the case of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (“The Scopes Monkey Trial”) was being adjudicated, and in which a young male teacher was accused of and tried for violating a state law that made it illegal to teach evolution in state-funded schools.

This trial had consumed the nation, with famous attorneys William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow the chief protagonists, and from which many a news story, editorial, book, play and film about the argument over evolutionary biology resulted. (Possibly the most famous was the film “Inherit the Wind,” made many years later, in 1960, as a fictionalized version of the trial).

The full aftermath of the trial was yet to come when the student asked his question of his teacher, Golden Paddock.

She gave him the appropriate answer for the time. She told me she said to the boy, as calmly and as kindly as she could, that the thing he was asking about wasn’t really about monkeys but rather the theory of evolution, which was not something taught in their school. They taught creationism, as was appropriate, she said to him.

She would have been fine if she had just stopped with that. But then she thought to add these words, presented here pretty close to verbatim:

“As I said, we don’t teach that here. However, if you wish to know more about that subject, you can go to the library to read about it.”

And so, she was fired. She was “Scopesed,” but without the trial and the fancy lawyers and the headlines.

She needed to work to support herself, of course, so she sought and subsequently found a teaching position (relatively) far away from home – in the neighboring state of Iowa, where she taught uneventfully until her marriage some years later.

I never got the sense that she had regrets or anger at the fallout. It was simple. She spoke of what they taught, and she also answered her student’s question in the spirit in which it was asked.

She was, after all, a teacher.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at

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