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In 43 years, teacher forms generations in West Memphis

Sarah Wilbanks, a Baptist, spent her entire teaching career in one Catholic school

Published: May 4, 2015   
Sarah Wilbanks (right) helps her first-grade students tend their vegetable and flower garden at St. Michael School in West Memphis. Wilbanks is retiring at the end of this school year after 43 years at St. Michael.

In 1969, Sarah Wilbanks drove to West Memphis from Mississippi on a lark. Newly graduated from Baylor University in Texas, a Catholic friend of Wilbanks put her on a list for Catholic schools to draw on for teachers.

“I was very surprised, but I came,” said Wilbanks, a lifelong Baptist.

She was told by pastor Father Thomas Donahue and principal R.G. Goodfellow very plainly when she walked in that she would be a new teacher at the school — it was just a fact.

“I already felt at home,” she said. “I started my teaching career right here, $300 a month. Boy, did I think I was in hog heaven. I taught first grade.”

And 43 years later, Wilbanks will say goodbye to her first graders at St. Michael School in West Memphis at the end of the school year to enjoy her retirement.

“I just feel like I get my strength from God and he is the one who has led me here. He’s closing this door and has something else in store for me,” Wilbanks said. “Now is the time to retire. I know it’s his doing.”

Make no mistake — Wilbanks, 68, said she didn’t “realize I was getting older” and is still a teacher at the top of her game. Case in point, the mother of three — who all attended St. Michael School — recently helped her youngest daughter study to get her own teaching degree.

“I told her, ‘Hey, I’m still good. I’m going to meet you halfway on that stage,’” Wilbanks said. But her husband, Kenneth, unexpectedly got gangrene in his foot and had to have his leg amputated below the knee in February. The faculty, students and parents have been her rock, sending up prayers, making food for the couple and even a prayer shawl, she said.

“I guess I’m going to be a nurse now,” Wilbanks said. “(Pastor) Father Charles Thessing anointed him with the healing of the sick and told him, ‘This is a healing; this is not your last rites.’ My husband being Baptist thought that was hilarious.”

Though she plans on helping in the future when needed, possibly as a substitute or reading to the children, she will no longer take that 45-minute drive from her home in Olive Branch, Miss., every day to the school that has been her work home her entire career.

“It’s a small school, and we’ve had to struggle with money and everything, but I feel everyone here is so dedicated to making this the best little school; it’s just a family,” Wilbanks said. “This is really a little diamond in the rough that people just need to discover.”

And Wilbanks has been a big part of that diamond’s shine, just ask school secretary Evelyn Goldsmith. Wilbanks was her teacher the second year she taught at the school. Wilbanks has also taught Goldsmith’s son and numerous nieces and nephews.

“What I love about her is she’s very firm but very loving. She’s got that soft-spoken voice, I don’t hear her raise her voice, but they listen,” Goldsmith, 51, said. “When the kids don’t finish the pizza crust or sandwich crust she sends them out to feed the birds every day.

“I just can’t express how many people she’s touched. She’s been here for so long; I’m going to start crying just talking about it. I don’t know what we’re going to do without her,” she added.

Aside from taking a year or two off when her children were born and also teaching fourth grade at the school, most of Wilbanks’ years have been in first grade. Her teaching style has been getting down on their level, which sometimes means pow-wowing on the giant world map rug on the floor, calming their fears about math and getting hands-on with science experiments.

“I have a rocking chair which I sit in to read to them and sometimes when I’m teaching them because it puts me eye to eye with them,” Wilbanks said. “Reading is so important and reading for enjoyment … I have a reading tree in my classroom. They go and stretch out and read when they get through with their work.”

She’s had 43 years’ worth of memories and suggests that all young teachers keep a scrapbook of the stories so they do not forget. However, she’s able to recall one off the top of her head.

“One time one of my little boys so sick and he said he felt so bad,” so Wilbanks walked him over to the sick bed near the library and out of the corner of her eye, she saw something amiss. “He was doing this little dance, ‘I am sick, I am sick.’ I turned around and caught him and he was really surprised, he was just really cute. He wasn’t sick at all so guess what, he got to come back,” she said with a laugh.

Wilbanks is not only proud of the education at the school, but the Catholic faith. She said she attends St. Michael more than her own church, Longview Heights Baptist Church, but is content with both religions in her life.

“I find myself almost half Baptist and half Catholic now. We lost a grandson in 1998; he only lived three months. I found myself then calling on Mary, that’s when I found my solace and my peace was through Mary,” Wilbanks said. “It seems like whenever there’s a crisis or something in my life that’s very stressful I go to that rosary and in fact, I have one I carry in my purse. In 2011 we lost another grandson in a horrific car accident and again I called on Mary. I’ve used her a lot and I’m so thankful everyone here has shared her with me.”

Her retirement isn’t the end, Wilbanks assures, as she will always make time to visit those that have made her career so enjoyable.

“I sure am proud of all of my students,” Wilbanks said. “So many turned out to be doctors, lawyers and politicians … I’m so thankful that each one of them has touched my life because it’s made me a better person.”

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