Just months after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Elma Black graduated a member of the first legally-mandated integrated class of Central High School in Murfreesboro. In the decade to follow, she married, had a son and a daughter, and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in Elementary Education. In 1979, she married James McKnight and wrapped up her first year of teaching. That fall, I met her. I was four.
Mrs. McKnight taught me how to read and write. She was my Kindergarten teacher. I share her with close to one-thousand other new learners whom she impacted over a long career in which she taught Kindergarten for 36 years. Dividing her career between Smyrna, Reeves-Rogers and Seigel Elementary Schools, she considered second grade as a career option, but stayed in Kindergarten to make an impact on students as they entered their education. “I remember how awful I was in Middle School, so I knew that was not a career option. I did not think I’d enjoy teaching just one subject and be done like in High School. So, Kindergarten was a good fit. I just stayed there.”
I had not seen Mrs. McKnight since my Senior Year at MTSU when I stopped by to say hello at Reeves- Rogers before moving away to pursue a career. When I recently wrote asking to meet with her, she generously agreed and we made plans to meet at a local bakery, Simply Pure Sweets, just off the square in Murfreesboro. As she walked into the eatery, I was so excited to see her. She had not changed from what I remembered forty years ago. Her beautiful face and warm smile drew me in just as it did that day in 1979 when I had wrapped myself around my dad’s gray pinstriped suit pant refusing to let go.
In the thirty-six years of her career, the world has changed significantly. Educational philosophies have come and gone. The consistent need of children throughout that time is the warm instruction and loving care that Mrs. McKnight was gifted in abundance. As Mrs. McKnight had lived a powerful historical moment in Murfreesboro’s City School System, legally-mandated integration, her perspective and experience was an asset to children and parents alike, who were facing an ever changing world.
As we discussed education philosophy changes over the years, she suggested that the biggest improvement in the educational system comes in each child being seen as an individual. Teachers can now meet the needs and challenges of every child at every level with individualized plans. This makes a large difference on children, especially children who previously would be classified below the median. At the beginning of her career, there would be a little extra thrown at the high achieving students, and a little bit of intervention for the lower performing students. The focus would just be to the median, meaning many kid’s needs just weren’t being met. Education reform means meeting more needs for more students.
Mrs. McKnight indulged my questions about race relations in the school systems over the years. “Racial tension comes in waves,” she stated, “but I never had a parent that was disrespectful. I sometimes felt there were higher expectations for me than would have been for a white counterpart by some parents, but never disrespect.” She explained how the school system was challenged by the reality it would discipline more and harsher their minority children. “In my career, I wanted to try to give children a clean slate. I made the decision to deal with discipline in the classroom. I did not send children to the office for discipline so that for one year they had a clean slate. I would also go to the first-grade teacher of children who tended to have issues and explain that they were a good kid, but just needed this or that. The teachers I asked were always willing to help.” Her advocacy of children comes from her belief that all people need a chance. Her grace stems from her deep faith.
The Historian of her church, Mrs. McKnight is an active member. Her teaching spirit benefited her congregation as she taught Sunday School for more than 30 years. Her faith is her most important legacy. A legacy she is building for her beautiful family.
Mrs. McKnight is a mother to three children who are educators in their own right. Andrew, her youngest, teaches in the same school system in which she built her career. Chay, her only daughter is a teacher’s aid, also working in Murfreesboro. David, her oldest is the Senior Associate Vice President of Emerson College and Executive Director of ArtsEmerson in Boston, Massachusetts. She enjoys two grandchildren, hosting them in the summers and visiting them as she can in Boston. A sister to six, her retirement days are full of participating in the lives of her nieces and nephews. She is a servant leader.
In her retirement, she took her love of writing and started a business venture. “I specialize in obituaries. I believe every life is a story. And that story should be told. I call it the Dash. When you die, you have your birth year and your death year. Those are really big events. But what is really important is what happens in the dash.”
I am so proud to have ventured into a small part of Mrs. McKnight’s dash. The positive impact a teacher can have on her students can change the world, if not at large, then on a very personal level for the individuals who were blessed to sit at her feet. She continues to teach outside the classroom with warmth and patience. The influence she has had on so many will add to the legacy she builds with her family. A legacy of love, grace and leadership. Elma Black McKnight is an Everyday Extraordinary Woman.