Dollie Griffith of Cleveland said her sixth-grade teacher, Levi Weese, became her all-time favorite teacher and the most unforgettable character in her life.
Griffith has kept the memory of Weese alive by writing and talking about the no-nonsense teacher who brought education and inspiration into her painful life when she was a timid, petite little girl who had recently lost her mother in death, her father by abandonment and was living with her grandparents.
“The year was 1942. I was entering Wooten School for the first time,” said Griffith who admits to being filled with apprehension at the time. “I was a shy, backward child of 13 who was anxious about entering a school I was not familiar with.”
Griffith said she had heard reports of how strict, no-nonsense and old-fashioned the mean old man called Mr. Weese was.
“And worst of all, he whips hard with a limb, not a paddle,” she said. But Griffith admits her anxiety was short-lived the moment she laid eyes on the lean, silver-haired gentleman who was not from these parts. His cheery introduction —“Good morning, students!” — convinced her this teacher, in his early 80s, was not her worst nightmare.
Weese had a small brass bell that he rang when it was time for class to assemble. Griffith said he made it clear to them that they were to be prompt, to take their seats and get organized in order for class to begin. It was also clear that this teacher’s reputation was rooted in discipline.
“My fears subsided in the days that followed. I learned that he was kind, could smile, had a sense of humor and was always a helping hand when we needed it,” said Griffith who instantly admired Weese.
“He had a grandfatherly look, beautiful white hair with a little wave on top and little horn-rimmed glasses. He kept his small mustache trimmed so neatly. To me he was a very distinguished gentleman.”
Griffith, who had Weese as her only teacher through the eighth grade, said she also admired the stately gentleman for having prayer and singing before class each morning which the students enjoyed.
Griffith said Weese would assign them long poems to recite, adding, “I was usually the only student who would know all of it in the time allotted to learn them.”
“We had to go to the front of the room and sit on long benches for each lesson,” she recalls. “No talking was allowed until he asked us to begin. Each student had to stand and read the portion assigned to them.”
According to Griffith, the elderly teacher kept a large table at the front of the room piled high with a variety of books and encouraged his students to take them home to read over the weekends.
“This pleased me very much as reading was my first love,” said Griffith. “I would read during recess, during lunch hour — anytime I could.”
Weese noticed Griffith’s reluctance to engage in social activities with the other students and gently encouraged her to join her classmates outside.
“I told him I didn’t want to be outside. I’d rather read. I knew he was only trying to help me overcome my shyness,” she said. “It was hard for me to make friends as I was not a forward person.”
One day the students were playing softball and Griffith was standing with another girl at the edge of the field watching. All the bases were loaded and there was no one left to bat. Weese asked for volunteers. No one responded. He then looked at Griffith.
“How about it, Dollie?” Weese asked. “You want to try and bat that ball?”
“Me? I don’t know anything about playing ball,” she replied.
“Just try,” Weese encouraged her.
The dainty little Dollie picked up the bat, wondering why she let her teacher talk her into a situation where students could laugh at her, especially if she missed. She approached the plate and waited nervously.
“That pitcher sent me a fast ball and I swung that bat with all my might,” said Griffith. “I didn’t miss!”
She connected with the ball and sent it flying far back into left field.
“Suddenly, the kids were hugging me and shouting, ‘You did it! You did it! We won! We won!’”
Then Weese came over, looked at Griffith with a warm smile and said, “I knew you could do it.”
Griffith said she knew once again her teacher was trying to help her overcome her shyness.
“I suppose he sensed my inner turmoil — all the sadness built up inside me — the loneliness I felt as I had lost my mother,” said Griffith. “Also my brothers had gone off to war and were sent overseas all within a space of a few months.”
Weese would talk kindly to Griffith and reassure her everything would turn out OK.
“I believed him because I trusted him more than any person I had ever known,” Griffith would write in a commentary about her favorite teacher. She especially loved it when Weese held his surprise spelling bees.
“He would have us line up all around the room and start at the beginning of the line and go to the end. When students misspelled a word they had to take their seat,” said Griffith who always studied hard to be ready for his surprise tests.
She and another girl named Norma were usually the last two standing. Although the girls split victories over one another, Griffith said she remembers fondly the little gifts of appreciation Weese would bestow upon them for their hard work, which she enjoyed.
“He graded our test papers with an E for excellence, S for satisfactory and F for failure. I was real happy that in the three years I had him for my teacher I did not get one F,” said Griffith.
“My mother always told me if I would study hard and do as I was told I would get good grades and never get a spanking at school. I always tried to abide by her advice. I still have the last report card he gave me.”
Griffith remembers well that last day of school in the eighth grade when she would no longer have Weese as her teacher, saying it was a “very sad time” for her and she hated to see it end.
“I was sitting on the front steps of the school waiting for the school bus to arrive when Mr. Weese came and sat beside me. I knew he could see I was almost in tears,” she said.
“He talked kindly to me, told me how much he appreciated my being a good student and how he would like for me to go to high school. He said he knew that I would be a good student because I was easy to teach and they had good teachers at Bradley High that would help me.”
Griffith could not bring herself to tell her teacher that her brothers had already told her she was not returning to school. Her grandparents needed her to help them in the fields. Such news, she felt, would break her teacher’s heart.
When fall came and it was time to return to school, Weese noticed the absence of his former pupil and decided to pay a visit to her grandparents. Griffith did not hear the entire conversation but she recalls, Weese begged them to let her come live with him and his wife.
She said Weese told her grandparents he would help her get an education and all he would ask for is that she would help his wife around the house after school as she was not in good health.
“They would not hear of it,” Griffith said. “They told him my brothers left me in their care while they were in the service and that’s where I had to stay.”
Weese left disappointed. A few days after that he sent Griffith a large box loaded with back issues of Reader’s Digest. Griffith said she was thrilled and became a subscriber for decades. Since then, the avid reader surrounded herself with good books inspired by that big table with all the good books Weese encouraged his students to read.
Years passed before Griffith would see her favorite teacher again, although they exchanged greetings at Christmas and other holidays. The loss of his wife came as unpleasant news to the dainty teen whose heart went out to the elderly man who would have raised her as his own.
“A few months afterward, I heard he was not feeling well,” said Griffith. “I made a special trip just to visit him. He seemed glad to see me. We talked of many things. He expressed disappointment again about my not attending high school.
“He told me he hoped I would have a happy life and wished me well in all my endeavors. It was a lovely visit. He always made me feel special and could converse about anything.”
A few weeks after her visit, Weese died.
“My tears would not stop falling,” confessed Griffith. “I felt a great loss. As I sat in the little country church during his eulogy, I did not hear many of the words the minister was saying.
“My mind was wandering back to the happy times — thinking about how dedicated he was to his profession, how he brought honor and deep personal interest to all his students. He was a pillar of strength in his community and his church.”
The strict disciplinarian who took an interest in a shy pupil who loved to learn and needed a friend was buried at the Moore’s Chapel Baptist Church cemetery in 1963, amid a packed church at his funeral.
Griffith made it clear that to this very day, there are former students and others who may insist Weese was too strict and too unlikeable, but that was not her experience with the veteran teacher.
“Some students didn’t like him because he made them mind. The way he handled his class — he didn’t tolerate any foolishness,” said Griffith. “I had good teachers before him but he was the best.”
According to Griffith, Bradley County has some outstanding citizens today because of the disciplined teaching skills, orderly structure and perseverance of Levi Weese.
“He was one of Bradley County’s best. He will always be remembered as the best friend I ever had and will always be,” said Griffith, who visited his grave last week. “This is not about me. I just want everyone to remember him in some way. Good teachers should never be forgotten. He made a major influence in this county.”
Research has shown that good teachers are the most important school-related factor for student learning and success. Today, recruiting and supporting good teachers remains critical in America.