Mrs. Lubbers is a wife and mother in the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.
“… receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise in thy latter end.”
I Remember Miss Reitsma
There is a certain danger in writing about a person who has died. That danger is heightened when one loved the person now deceased. One tends to immortalize that person, or, at least, to eulogize him. One sees only the good, the strong and likable facets; one is blinded to the character flaws and the negatives of that person.
I write this reminiscence with my blinders on.
I was an eighth grade student, gap-toothed and gawky when I first came under the tutelage of Miss Alice Reitsma in 1955. She had come to Hope PRCS as its administrator and junior high teacher in 1950 from our Christian school in Redlands. We were rural kids, and many of the raw-boned ninth grade boys who went up to the front to ask her a question — or just to be noticed by her — towered over her.
That first day in class, I studied her well.
She was single.
She was blond.
She was shapely and trim.
She was a smart dresser who wore ecru-colored silk blouses and pleated wool skirts, and she tied scarves sassily over her sweaters.
She wore fashionable pumps.
She never raised her voice; yet she had the control of a drill sergeant.
And her eyes, the corners crinkled and they sparkled when she laughed — and she laughed a lot.
In short, she was everything our mothers were not.
Miss Reitsma had beautiful handwriting, and when we arrived at school each morning, the blackboard was filled end to end with all our assignments, lengthy outlines, and notes. This was the era before copying machines. We students wrote and copied, and took notes all day long, and my third finger on the right hand still bears an extra little pad of flesh with a callus on it.
We memorized line after line of poetry and scores of Psalter numbers, which we also wrote for penmanship. Every Friday afternoon we sang from the “yellow book” of spirituals and patriotic songs. We had no formal school choir, but our love for singing is shown yet today in the church choirs and professional singers, members who passed through Miss Reitsma’s capable hands. We engaged in formal debates, polishing our inherent argumentative skills. Without a doubt, our arguments shed more heat than light; nevertheless, skills of logic and rhetoric were encouraged. The time-lines we made were lengthy and thorough, printed by hand on ordinary typing paper, taped together with yards of Scotch Tape.
Every once in a while my husband pulls my copious junior high history outlines out of his file. We both agree that the students in this country school lacked no good thing. We had an exemplary education. Miss Reitsma embraced the pedagogy that the object of teaching a student is to enable that student to get along without a teacher. She was unquestionably influential for the ministers, professors, and teachers who came out of her classes — I count seven out of the 21 students in grades eight and nine.
Try as I can, I scarcely remember one individual lesson that Miss Reitsma taught. I only recall how eagerly I looked forward to school each day; how good she made you feel about yourself; how kind and patient she was, especially to students of lesser abilities; how enthusiastically she taught her courses; how happy she always appeared — even when breast cancer viciously attacked her.
Once every month or so, Miss Reitsma would invite a local PR minister to come and speak to us junior high students. We listened to Rev. Heys, Rev. Harbach, Rev. Blankespoor, Rev. Lubbers, Rev. Lanting, Rev. Hanko, Rev. McCollam, Rev. H. Veldman, Rev. Ophoff. More than once we listened to the venerable Rev. Vos from Hudsonville PR Church. Besides stimulating our love for spiritual things, this helped us become acquainted with our ministers. We peppered them with questions, and drank deeply of the cup of wisdom which they offered. According to my best judgment, Miss Reitsma pioneered the present-day practice in our schools to hold regular chapels for the student body.
Undoubtedly, Miss Reitsma was also the innovator of the all-school program. She fine-tuned this activity to an art form, complete with narrators and hand-painted banners conveying the theme. She taught us songs we were totally unworthy of singing; she gave us speeches to recite more worthy of senators. Nothing but the best for this little country school. And we rose to the occasion. Many parents will recall the program given in Hudsonville Church where all the students came in at once, using all the aisles, singing full throttle:
We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
That beautiful city of God.
The School Board could have doubled tuition that night, and the parents would have cheerfully paid it.
Miss Reitsma could teach, she could inspire … and she was a head-turner. I saw farm boys tuck in their shirts, tie their shoe laces, slick back their hair, and act just a bit more like a gentleman when she was around. I saw grown men trip over their own feet in an effort to be chivalrous. It was amusing, really. I can imagine women felt more than a little threatened by her. And this didn’t escape us astute teenagers. We had an eye for that sort of thing. The late Sietze Buning would have called it “Purpaleanie.”
I remember our ninth grade class trip to Chicago. One of our excursions included a walk down the now defunct Maxwell Street. Every foreign merchant snapped to when she walked by. Teachers weren’t supposed to look this way! I can still hear the Jew with whom she had been haggling call out, “Come back, Blondie! Come back!”
When Miss Reitsma stepped out on our sandburred playground — infrequently, I might add, due to her heavy teaching schedule and that blackboard she felt compelled to fill up for the afternoon session — everyone batted a little more briskly, teeter-tottered a little more rapidly, jump-roped a little more agilely, and pumped the swing a little higher. She motivated kids indoors or outdoors. Such was her talent.
Eminently qualified for teaching, Miss Reitsma was above all inspirational. She motivated us kids to think and respond above and beyond that which we ourselves thought possible. And, isn’t this what teaching is all about? Anyone can assign pages, parrot teachers’ manuals, and hand out detention slips. But to challenge students to dig deeper, think more broadly, and reach higher is the mark of a classic teacher. To give students roots and wings signals a real teacher. Miss Alice Reitsma was a real teacher.
I have attended school for many years. Almost all my teachers were above average. I remember them with fondness. Many, I even love. But Alice Reitsma was peerless. She came to Hope School “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14b).
It is a credit to the confidence parents had in her that she was able to show the movie “Drums Along the Mohawk” for our history class — a practice not common in our Protestant Reformed schools — with not so much as a raised eyebrow from our parents. I remember how she held her hand over the lens when the husband and wife in the film went to bed. How her eyes danced with mischief as we kids called out our protests!
My sister recalls the long illness which plagued Alice Reitsma. She recalls how Miss Reitsma would leave the classroom in pain, telling the students to sing loudly so they would not be able to hear her cries in the hallway. But in between the songs, the students could hear the agony she was in. She remembers the wail of the ambulance jouncing up the gravel driveway of school to carry her beloved teacher away. Breast cancer had inexorably wasted her body from its onslaught seven years earlier. This was 40 years ago, and very little research had been done on this debilitating disease. I had occasion to remember my dear teacher when I wrestled with my own demons with breast cancer.
I went to visit her at her home. This vibrant, energetic teacher lay weak and wasted, her pallor at one with the white, crisp sheets. Even those wonderful green eyes were robbed of vitality. I’m told that on one occasion a group of us students stood around her bed and sang for her. Mercifully, I remember nothing of this.
Quoting from the Hope Echoes:
September 14, 1952: Miss Dykstra substituted today because Miss Reitsma went to the hospital for an operation.
September 18, 1952: Mrs. Stuursma came today to take Miss Reitsma’s place for some time.
December 19, 1952: Miss Reitsma has been teaching afternoons for 2 weeks and will start full time Monday.
November 4, 1953: Had a big treat today. Miss Reitsma bought us caramel apples because we sang so well at our Reformation Day Program.
September 2, 1954: Rev. Harbach teaches us in the afternoon and Miss Reitsma in the morning.
January 17, 1958: Miss Reitsma wasn’t at school today, and we received the news that she is in the hospital for surgery. This makes us all feel very sad and serious.
March 17, 1958: We have been having substitute teachers…. We were happy to see Miss Reitsma well enough to visit school today. She wore the white jacket that the Hope pupils gave her, and treated us all to paddle pops.
April 8, 1959: Everybody is serious and it’s hard to work. Miss Reitsma fell this morning and had to be taken to the hospital.
In response to the dedication of the Hope Echoes to her that spring, Miss Reitsma penned:
When on that final day at school, I lay in the hall on our little army cot with the teachers standing helplessly around and the pupils filing mystified to their classrooms (mine without an instructor), the thought struck me squarely that for this year at least my teaching days were over…. Many times the words of the old familiar hymn “He Leadeth Me” come to my mind:
His faithful follower I would be
For by His hand He leadeth me.
I’ve always tried to teach you that, and now I’m trying to teach it to myself.
September is a month in which good teachers everywhere take delight. The beginning of a new school year with its fresh hopes and aspirations is hard to replicate. Pencils and erasers, notebooks and brand-new color crayons, and “children’s faces holding wonder like a cup” — something this good comes only once a year.
In September of 1959, Miss Reitsma realized that she would not be able to teach that year, and quite likely never again. Here is the final paragraph of a letter filled with information about the coming school year, written to her constituency in the Hope Highlights:
The thought of opening day without an assignment for myself on the teaching staff at Hope quite overwhelms me at times. Often during the summer months I have contemplated this day, sometimes with hope, sometimes with fear, sometimes with the prayer — “O Lord, let me teach — any grades, any conditions — just
give me the strength to teach once more.” But opening day is here and the Lord has shown me the way. He has also given the necessary grace. I used to consider the words — that God gives grace as needed — a handy phrase which people said to each other when nothing else seemed appropriate. But it really is true. It is an actual experience.
On December 21, 1959, at 5:00 a.m., Miss Reitsma died at the age of 41 years. No bells tolled, no banners waved, no trumpets sounded. At least, none that we could see or hear.