2021-2022 Cedar Hill ISD Elementary Teacher of the Year
(CEDAR HILL, TEXAS) Patricia Jones Byrd is the 2021-2022 Cedar Hill ISD Elementary Teacher of the Year.
Long before earning that honor and an appearance on the nationally-televised Drew Barrymore Show, Byrd was able to overcome poverty as a child in southeast Texas. During that time, she gained a love of reading, which she utilized during her more than three decades as an educator.
Byrd was born into what she describes as “abject poverty” in New Orleans, in 1956. Her parents moved their young family 265 miles to the west, to Beaumont, Texas.
The Beaumont area is geographically in Texas but culturally in Louisiana.
Byrd attended Pipkin Elementary in the early 1960s. The racially segregated school was named after its founder, Woodson Pipkin, who was a freed slave. Byrd’s father, a former sharecropper and devout Baptist minister, worked across the street from the school at a Sewage Treatment Plant. Byrd’s mother, who was fluent in three languages, worked in food services.
Importance of Memorization
Byrd said the school’s lack of resources were apparent to all of the students. She learned to read through old, tattered books in the “Dick and Jane” series. Byrd emphasized the importance of “memorization” in schools. She and her classmates were required to memorize several notable passages. They included the Preamble to the Constitution, The Bill of Rights, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” and the inscription on the base of The Statue of Liberty.
Each night, Byrd’s father – a Baptist Pastor — asked her to read The Bible to her until he fell asleep. Just when she thought he had dozed off for the evening, Byrd’s father would say “keep reading.” And she did just that— from Genesis to Revelation!
Living Through Tragedy
When Byrd was 9 years old, tragedy struck the Jones family, as her mother – then 36 years old – passed away. “I look back at it now, and the cause of my mom’s death was a lack of access to health care,” Byrd said. “When you live in states of economic poverty, you often have to choose between medicine for your chronic health conditions and putting food on the table for your young children. My mother chose the latter. She died so that her seven young children might live. My mother lived for her children, to the extent that she literally gave us the clothes off her back. She made our dresses, from her own dresses.”
Shortly after her mother’s death, Byrd remembers receiving a school assignment to report on the health benefits of lettuce. As part of the report, Byrd had to bring a head of lettuce with her. The price of one head of lettuce was a mere five cents; yet her father had to scrounge to get the nickel for the lettuce his daughter was counting on him to provide. Ten minutes before her presentation, Byrd’s father walked in with a fresh head of lettuce! “The rippling effects of poverty on children and their families are far more disturbing than even our worst nightmares,” Byrd said.
Byrd’s father married a widow 12 years his junior who had four children of her own. The couple would go on to have two children together, which meant a three-tiered, 13-children family. Initially, Byrd and her biological siblings resented their new stepmother and her children, because they had grown up with more resources and appeared to flaunt their affluence in the faces of Byrd and her biological siblings.
Byrd said toward high school, the family not only reconciled their differences, but connected to the point where they dropped “all of the labels of steps and halves” and simply became family. She refers to her father’s second wife as her “second mother,” and they were very close until her second mother’s passing in 2019. Byrd considers her second mom one of the most virtuous women to ever walk this Earth.
A Time of Segregation
Schools in Beaumont remained segregated until 1972 – 18 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs. Board of Education. The year, 1972, was Byrd’s sophomore year at French High School in Beaumont.
Although the school was integrated in the classroom, Byrd said there was no social interaction between Black and white students on campus.
None of the teachers were People of Color, and Byrd said none of the teachers gave her the time of day, with one notable exception – Mrs. Schwartz.
“She saw beyond my dark hue, kinky hair, and worn out clothing. She saw me. She saw my potential to achieve, and her unwavering commitment to my success motivated me to achieve excellence,” Byrd said. “I had the opportunity to thank her many years later. Every kid needs and deserves a Mrs. Schwartz in their school experience.”
In addition to being named The Cedar Hill ISD Teacher of the Year, Byrd is a published author and is listed in Marquis Who’s Who in America.