I spent four years with the “legendary” Mrs. Sara Payne and despite thinking of her often, I never saw her once I left Greenville High School almost thirty years ago. I was so sorry to hear of her passing. In a book, “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…”, I wrote a story about a moment in my life when Mrs. Payne proved to me how uplifting one moment of kindness can be. I doubt she knew and am sorry I never took the opportunity to tell her. Here is an excerpt from that story.
“The one person unintimidated by Sam Wiley was Mrs. Sara Payne. It seemed that Mrs. Sara Payne had been at Greenville High forever plus one day. In 1981 she became the South Carolina State Teacher of the Year which helped to fuel my own intimidation of her. I was not in a small group. Even before she garnered her teacher of the year award it seemed her name was already legendary. To me, she was the most intimidating person at Greenville High, even more so than Sam. Maybe the most intimidating person I had ever met. Anytime her name was mentioned it seemed that hushed, reverent tones were used, and I fully expected to hear Gothic organ music playing in the background. A mentoring teacher once told me that the key to successful classroom discipline was never to smile until after Christmas. Mrs. Sara Payne must have had the same mentor and must have listened better than I did. She had the successful classroom discipline associated with Catholic priests during the Inquisition. Well, there was the Great Mouse Invasion.
Mrs. Sara Payne was terrified of mice. After a mouse was seen in her classroom, she exited, moved her classes to the library and refused to return until the little intruder was caught. Someone decided he had a plan that would, by disrupting class, create less time spent in Mrs. Sara Payne’s Senior English Class. This someone began to release lab mice into Mrs. Sara Payne’s classroom. It worked for a while until one was finally caught. It was white, and then another was caught and it was white with brown spots, and then another, well just say a bunch were caught, none of which were the traditional “mousy” color. Resembling pets more than vermin, public outcry put an end to this rodent holocaust. We never found who “someone” was but thankfully he or she caved to the public sympathy for lab rats.
Mrs. Sara Payne and Sam Wiley took to each other like…well they did not take to each other at all. If Mrs. Payne had used the traditional fine southern feminist curse “Bless Your Heart”, she would have used it a lot and Sam just used …well I don’t know because I tried to stay away from him but I am sure it involved the word ‘bitch.’ His “stirring of the pot” caused the tension and the pressure to increase, not only in my little athletic world but all around the school. I believe we all knew what it felt like to be a green bean in a pressure cooker. The pressure would finally get the best of the normally stoic Mrs. Sara Payne when Sam began to remove the ancient flora from Greenville High School.
In the quadrangle that Greenville Senior High was built around were roses. Many had been placed there in honor of alumni who had passed away. They were the first to go. Sam’s reasoning was that it took too much man power to maintain them. I agree that you could designate one custodian to care for the roses and it would have been a full time job, but could you not allow family members to care for them or at the very least come collect them? Could you not request volunteers to care for them? NO, you just had them pulled up and dumped in the trash. The alumni association along with Mrs. Sara Payne was livid but could do nothing about the roses because it was too late. In the spring of 1986, the American Holly “bushes” became a different story.
What is the difference between a holly bush and an American Holly Tree? I never really knew, but it was a question Sam should have asked before he decided to cut down all of the American Holly trees on the campus of Greenville Senior High. It began his slippery slide into…retirement. Holly bushes can be used as hedges, trimmed, shaped or destroyed. American Holly Trees can grow to be over thirty feet high and attain ages in excess of one hundred years old and cannot be cut down if they are on a historic site. Guess which ones were at Greenville Senior High? Greenville Senior High School was built in the 1930s and is a historic site. This meant these trees were over fifty years old and of as much historical significance as was the school. Sam decided that he would have them cut down to create less work for the custodial staff. Instead he stirred up an angry hornet’s nest, led by Mrs. Sara Payne. Mrs. Sara Payne had had enough and called in the alumni association and every tree hugger in Greenville County. Greenville Senior High School is now over eighty years old. So are the trees. They stayed. Sam did not last through the summer of 1986.
After a particularly grueling “dosey doe” with Sam over a miscue by a wrestling coach and another letter to be put in my folder, I trudged into the library to find my driver’s education students. I found them, along with Mrs. Sara Payne and her class. It must have been during the mouse holocaust. As I went to the second floor of the library, I paused at the top of the stairs reflecting on the invisible weight I had just carried to get up there. I felt a hand touch my elbow and turned to find Mrs. Sara Payne staring into my face with something I had never seen before: a smile. Blessedly before I said something unintelligible she said, “Keep the faith, it will be over soon and I am not talking about you.” All I could do was nod. I did not realize that Mrs. Sara Payne even knew I was alive. I began to think of her as simply Mrs. Payne.
Rest well Mrs. Payne.