There are a few things that come to mind when former students think of Mary Yarborough.
One: “She was fair.”
Two: “She cared about her students.”
And three: “She didn’t play.”
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You wouldn’t dare to act up in her class.
And those were her goals as a teacher.
“They worked me hard at Garner Senior High School, I did some of everything,” Yarborough, 70, said. "They looked to me to get it right as far as discipline was concerned.”
During the Martin Luther King Jr. event two weeks ago, she received the annual “Dream in Action Award.”
The award goes to someone for their efforts in promoting academic excellence of students in achieving their dreams and goals.
Introducing her, Elmo Vance said she was described as a strict disciplinarian.
As soon as he said that, you could hear murmurs of “mmhmmm,” in the crowd, as if they were in agreement.
When Yarborough thinks about her time as a teacher she rocks back and forth in her La-Z Boy chair and looks into space.
“Everybody was trying to put their kids in my class because if you go through Mary Yarborough’s class, you’re going to come out knowing how to type without looking,” Yarborough said. “And your behavior was good.”
Susan Gray, a graduate of Garner High School, agreed. She took Yarborough’s typing class in 1970.
“The thing I remember about Ms. Yarborough was that she never sat down,” Gray said. “She always walked up and down the isles and corrected every move we made to make sure our fingers were on the right keys. But I dearly loved her. To this day she is one of my favorite teachers.”
Many of the lessons Yarborough taught to her students came from the lessons she learned as a child. She said she always stressed education.
“I knew that getting an education was going to be their key to coming out of poverty,” she said.
Raised by her grandparents along with 10 other cousins in a small town called Neuse, right outside of Raleigh, she lived in poverty during her youth.
But she was determined to get out after working a few odd jobs with low pay.
“I had a burning desire to go to college and get an education,” she said. "And that was going to keep me from being in the poverty level, having to do the things that I was rid of doing."
She would eventually graduate from N.C. Central University and become a teacher.
She got to Garner in 1968 and started during a time when integration was new in the schools. Black teachers had to make sure they were doing adequate work because their credentials were being constantly checked, she said. But her principals and students trusted her.
One day, she said, one of the principals came to her classroom and said he needed a favor. He said he needed her to go with a teacher and his students on a field trip to Myrtle Beach. She was hesitant.
“Nobody but me a black woman, and here is this white man and these boys, white boys mostly, two or three black boys going with them. I said why did he pick me. Why couldn’t he pick some black males on this faculty to do that,” she thought.
“He said ‘Ms. Yarborough, I don’t trust nobody else down there with them.’ He wasn’t going to let them go down there unless there was a disciplinarian in the bunch,” Yarborough recalled.
She needed a couple of days to think about it. She talked to her husband and asked him what he thought about it. He told her to do what she thought she should do.
So when Yarborough got back to school, some of the students ran to her and begged her to go.
She finally agreed to go, but on one condition. She looked at the principal sternly.
“I said I’ll go with them down there, but I’ll tell you something, in my going, if we get a portion of the way down there and these young’uns get wild, I’m going to pull them together the best I can, talk to them and tell them get your bags and everything, let’s get back to Garner. I’m not going with you another further and you ain’t going to stay down here acting like a bunch of fools,” she recalled. “And I said if I have to I’m going to call the police because I don’t want not one parent holding it against me, what I did or did not do.”
The principal said ‘OK.’
On the way to the beach, riding in their own car, the students were speeding with their feet hanging out the windows, and radio blasting. She drove in front of them motioned them to pull over to the side.
They hadn’t got out of Garner yet.
She sat them down and talked to them.
She told them that they were starting out wrong. She said she wanted them to drive the speed limit keep their feet in the car and turn down the radio.
“If you can’t obey what I say do, I’m going to turn around and go back to that school right now and call the principal and tell the principal to send the cops to get everyone of you and bring you back here,” she told them. “And I said ‘if you think I won’t do it you keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll show you real quick,’” she paused.
“I didn’t have to speak to them young’uns no more,” she said with a laugh. “That tickled me.”
A caring person
She taught in room 109, said John Williams, former principal and student at Garner High School.
Williams also hired her to teach at Middle Creek when he became principal in the 2000’s.
“She always brought to that subject matter that role of the strong teacher and parent – and not that she replaces parents,” Williams said. “She was always caring and I wanted her there for my students. She was there to teach them the skills but also to help them with character and development.”
Former Garner Principal Drew Cook also remembers Yarborough as a principal and a student.
“This is a little embarrassing. I did not take her class, but I did have the opportunity to attend an after-school detention back in the 10th grade and Ms. Yarborough was the teacher,” Cook said. “I had gotten myself in a little bit of mischief and I remember Ms. Yarborough being in there waiting.”
Cook graduated from Garner High in 1992 but says he will never forget that short time in detention.
“She made a point to come around and talk to each on of us and I’ll never forget that,” he said. “She would take the time to pull kids aside and find out what’s going on. With encouragement I quickly decided that was a place I did not want to be again.”
She was patient and took the time to find out what was wrong, Cook said.
“I call it teaching with love,” Yarborough said. “In order to correct their behavior, they’ve got to see love first of all and that you care next and that you are kind as best you can be in handling them until they arrive at a point that they can handle and deal with their weaknesses a little better than they have been.”
She won ‘Teacher of the Year’ in Garner in 1976 and in 1983. She worked as a full time teacher at Garner High for 30 years and retired in 1998.
But she couldn’t stay out of retirement. She went back to Garner High School as a part-time employee for a year. Then she worked part-time in different administrative duties and worked as an alternative programs coordinator at East Garner Middle and East Wake High School for a few years.
She finished up her career at Middle Creek High School in 2009.
The last 10 years of her career, she worked in discipline as an at-risk coordinator working with students serving in in-school suspension.
“I listened to my students. I observed behavior,” Yarborough said. “I was not a naggy person, but I did point out to my students certain types of behavior that I did not feel was acceptable and in pointing out that type of behavior I showed them how they would hurt other people and weren’t being fair to other people in their behavior.”