FOR BESSIE PENDER, THIS DAY IN LATE August figured to be much like every other she had spent at Larrymore Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., over the past 17 years: The floors had to be mopped, shelves dusted and offices cleaned. But then came the telephone call. “I got it!” Pender shouted as she hung up. Teachers preparing for the opening of school rushed from their classrooms and hugged her, tears of joy in their eyes. Bessie Pender, custodian, had just become Bessie Pender, fifth-grade teacher.
Two weeks later, Pender, 35, was facing two dozen fifth graders at Coleman Place Elementary, a few miles from Larrymore, meting out warmth and discipline like an old pro. But then she had been rehearsing for this moment for a long time. One day seven years ago, Pender walked into one of the classrooms she was to clean and experienced an epiphany. The floor was strewn with wastepaper, the blackboard was gray with chalk dust, and the children’s desks were smudged with fingerprints. “I just threw up both hands and said, ‘Lord—enough! I can’t take it anymore!’ ” Pender says. “I just got disgusted. I was talking to God and said, I know You have a job for me to do, Lord. I just don’t know what it is. But I can tell you what I want to do. I want to teach. I want to make a difference.”
Two months later, Pender applied to study for a bachelor’s degree in education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Once accepted, she began a daily grind of morning class-work at Old Dominion and afternoon classwork of a decidedly different sort at Larrymore. At 1 p.m. she would change into her green uniform and take mop in hand to begin eight hours of custodial work. Then she would return to the redbrick, single-story house where she and her husband, Ben, now 36, and their daughter, LaTonya, now 18, would sit down to a meal she sometimes had prepared the previous weekend. After that she would often hit the books until after midnight.
Pender had reason to think of calling it quits. “In college, some of my professors told me, ‘You are not going to make it,’ ” she recalls. “There were some bad times.” But friends and family kept her on course. “One time she got depressed and decided she was going to stop because the work at Larrymore was too hard, college was too expensive and her family was at home without her,” remembers fellow custodian Helen Gray. “I just told her it would get better after a while.”
Larrymore’s principal, Peggie Robertson, also encouraged Pender by letting her work as a teacher’s aide from time to time. “I watched her with children, and I knew she bonded with them,” says Robertson, who considered hiring Pender but decided it would be better for her to teach elsewhere. “I wanted a new beginning for Bessie,” Robertson explains.
The fifth of six daughters born and raised in Norfolk by Albert Reeves, a construction worker, and his wife, Loree, a homemaker, Bessie is the first in her family to graduate from college. Her father, then retired, drove her to Old Dominion and then to Larrymore every day, while husband Ben used the family car to get to his job as a mechanic in a linen factory. Albert was too ill with respiratory-problems to attend his daughter’s graduation this past May, so Bessie bought her cap and gown two weeks before the ceremony and wore them on a visit to his sickbed. He died of a stroke a month after she graduated.
It was Bessie’s stubborn refusal to surrender her dream that most impressed Coleman Place principal Jeanne Tomlinson, who hired her. “I interviewed three people for the job,” Tomlinson says. “The other two were straight out of college. I felt Bessie had experience and the enthusiasm to achieve. Anyone who works that hard to get something is going to make it.”
And Pender hasn’t quit working hard. She arrives at Coleman Place each morning at 8, half an hour earlier than required, to straighten the classroom and review the day’s lesson plans. Just before 9:30, when the children start filing in, Pender is waiting in the doorway, ready to give each a hug. Though she now earns more than twice her custodian’s salary of $10,650, Pender hasn’t forgotten where she came from. At the end of the day, she has her students wash the blackboard, move the wastebaskets next to the door and place their chairs on their desks. Nor is she likely to forget what she learned on the way to becoming a teacher, a lesson she now passes on to her pupils. “I tell them, Just try,” she says. “Even if the answer is wrong, I don’t care. That’s how we learn.”
NINA BURLEIGH in Norfolk