From a one-room schoolroom to leading the class in more ways than one, Joan Mathis is a favorite figure around Paris.
Former students greet their teacher wherever she goes, she said.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “... I feel very fortunate to have taught 51 years in this area.”
Mathis, who was born a Reese, attended the Reed South Prairie School, one of the former black schools in the area, where her aunt, Maggie Reese, taught.
“She would let me come along with her and read what they were reading,” Mathis said.
“When they tested me at Baldwin Elementary School, they had me read the first- and second-grade books and said ‘let’s put her in the third grade.’ Now, I wasn’t smart. I couldn’t have done that today.”
Another of her aunts, June Reese, cooked at the Paris Golf & Country Club and was known far and wide for her culinary talents.
“I would go into the store with her, and they would just give her a discount,” Mathis said. “She was well-known throughout the area.”
Mathis said she attended segregated schools in the Powderly area.
“Of course, schools were segregated then,” she said. “I’ve been here a long time.”
She graduated from North Powderly school in 1956 and then from college, first attending Paris Junior College shortly after it desegregated and then on to Wiley College to finish her degree.
Her father, she said, worked it out with Sen. A.M. Aikin that all five of his children would attend Paris Junior College.
“Then I came back and taught there,” she said. “It will always have a special place in my life.”
But first, she taught at a couple of different high schools.
She said when she thinks of the wildest thing to happen in her classroom, she actually thinks of herself.
“I was on my way to class and I walked and there was a little ridge across the doors and I fell into the classroom. I was on the floor, books were scattered everywhere and I was waiting for the students to laugh — there were a few snickers — but the students were helping me up. I just stood up and started calling the roll. They didn’t say anything about it, and I didn’t either. I was so embarrassed.
“I finally said, ‘y’all can laugh. I won’t look to see who’s laughing.’ They didn’t say one word.”
She said she would always remember the one time a student spoke to her very negatively and she listened to a voice inside that counseled her to keep quiet. After class, the student apologized and told Mathis she had gotten a call her grandmother, who was like a mother to her, had died.
“To this day, I am thankful that I didn’t say anything,” Mathis said. “It taught me a lesson. It’s not always wise to respond, especially if it’s a negative.”
After going back to get her master’s degree, Mathis then got an offer to teach at her alma mater, and she worked at Paris Junior College until she retired, teaching English.
Mathis also has embraced the community beyond the classroom. For the past 29 years, she has been an organizer of the Paris Debs, a scholarship program for young women.
“I have to give credit to another group of ladies, who had a very similar program (Les Belles Parisian),” she said. “Geneva Bailey, Ms. Cora Williams, just people who worked in the community. My sister won one year.”
Mathis said she’s probably the oldest one in the group, but they are well-grounded.
“I was away for two years, while my daughter was ill, and I never heard anyone say ‘oh, well this didn’t get done because you weren’t here,’ Mathis said.
“They really did a good job. It is an excellent example of teamwork, because there’s so many different needs. … They did a wonderful job.”
Though retired from teaching, Mathis still wants to interact with the community and took a part-time job at Maxey Funeral Home.
She also serves on the board of Habitat for Humanity and is a member of the Paris Noon Study Club and the Paris Education Foundation, where they have a scholarship for her. She is secretary to the Paris NAACP, is on the board of the Paris Junior College alumni and is part of a new group called the Citywide Ushers, which helps provide ushers for churches at different events. She has a spot at the Boys & Girls Club Wall of Honor.
Mathis enjoys giving back to the community, she said.
“I have been very, very fortunate,” she said. “This community has been very special to my family for generations.”