Letter: Remembering Hill and Plain's Mrs. Hibbard: New Milford native pays tribute to late teacher

As I roll away about a half century of memories, I still visualize the day I came home to 69 Perry Drive, New Milford, and saw Mrs. Hibbard’s blue car parked in our sloped driveway. The car wasn’t anything fancy, in fact, it looked a little old to me. It was probably a Ford Galaxy or something like that, just a plain practical four-door car. Practical like a rural New England woman born in 1924 would have been.

After all, having survived the Great Depression, endured brutal winters, and witnessed a world war, the owner of that blue car was probably the type of woman who worked hard, occasionally did without, and made things last. If her family hadn’t done so themselves, I’m sure she would have known families who had farmed Connecticut’s rocky soil.

But getting back to that day in 1974, Mrs. Hibbard had told me in school she was going to see my mother that afternoon. Grandmotherly-type teacher that she was, she wanted to make sure I knew I wasn’t in any trouble.

When I got home from the bus stop, there they were, chatting over coffee at the kitchen table. And no, I wasn’t in any trouble at all. Instead, Mrs. Hibbard was just being a teacher…. and a good one at that.

She didn’t visit my mother exclusively. She visited ALL her students’ mothers. Of course, I knew I was the star of the show and I was excited that the two women in my life were acting like friends.

At the conclusion of Mrs. Hibbard’s visit, she and my mother walked out back to watch me go roaring down the hill on my Big Wheel and flying over a homemade ramp. Of course, Mrs. Hibbard had already earned her day’s pay and she was probably ready to go home.

But grandmothers and first grade teachers know that little boys rise and fall on their words. I don’t remember what words she spoke to me as I triumphantly pushed my Big Wheel back up the hill, but whatever she said that autumn afternoon made me feel like my Junior Evil Knievel stunt was really show-worthy. I went to bed smiling that night, having impressed my teacher.

I hadn’t been sure how I had felt about Mrs. Hibbard when I first met her a few weeks earlier. My family and I had arrived from Ohio a few days after the school year began, so I enjoyed the special attention being a transfer student meant. The woman seemed nice, but she was still a stranger to me.

To make matters worse, my first afternoon in her class, I put my lips on the water fountain and she’d spanked me, three gentle pops on the butt. But she also let me bury my face in her long black skirt as she rubbed the back of my head and soothed me until the tears were gone.

She was kind and forgiving, but she still made sure I knew what I’d done wrong. I didn’t go home angry. I went home feeling chastised — and loved. Mrs. Hibbard would take attendance by calling our first names and we were expected to answer with our last name and courtesy title.

I still remember her beginning the roll call with “Tina,” followed by a little girl’s voice responding “Miss Baird.” Then, there was “Price” — “Mr. Broder” “Jim” — “Mr. Bridges, and so forth. I don’t know why Price Broder’s name came before mine — maybe it was “Brawder” or something like that — but I do remember that it was the first time “Mr. Bridges" was ever used in connection with me. It was yet another way of making everyone in her class feel special.

Mrs. Hibbard had birthday parties for every student whose birthday fell within the school year. She assigned reading groups with names chosen by the students. I was in the “Kims” and we frequently were called to the circle of tiny chairs simultaneously with the “Ghosts.”

In December, I received the high honor and great privilege of her picking me to be the voice of the rooster in the Christmas play. After all, being raised by Alabama parents who’d lived on farms, I could actually imitate a rooster, while everyone else had auditioned with either “Cockledoodle-doo!” or “Cluck, Cluck, Cluck.” I still have that talent, by the way, of imitating roosters. It’s comforting to know that if I ever lose my law license, I can still make a living.

Over Christmas, Mrs. Hibbard did something unexpected: She became Mrs. Roberts. When school resumed in January, she assured us that she was the same, just that she had found a wonderful new husband. I didn’t know much about her previous husband (not even his name until last night) except that he had died and had been in a wheelchair. I remember Mrs. Hibbard telling us one day about how she had ramps in her house for him.

Life happens and school years end. Soon I was in Mr. Murphy’s second grade class and the following April, we moved off to West Virginia. As for Mrs. Hibbard, she was consigned to fading, but not completely faded, memories. She was and remains a distinguished face in a long line of women and men who, in exchange for low salaries, had tended to my scraped knees and bruised feelings while laboring to give me a future.

I’ve never been back to New Milford since we moved away and it has now been about 46 years since I looked into her eyes or heard her voice. Even though Mrs. Hibbard was only about 50 years old when she taught me (a fact I didn’t know then), when you’re 6, anyone with strands of grey hair is “old.” Hence, whenever I thought of her over the years, I assumed she had died decades earlier.

Perhaps I could have run one of those computer background checks on her and found out differently, but I didn’t even know her first name until now. I just knew her as “Mrs.”

Last night, for whatever reason, I searched for “Hibbard Roberts Teacher New Milford,” thinking I might find an old obituary. I didn’t really expect to because I thought she might have passed before they posted them online.

To my surprise, though, I found one: A teacher at Hill and Plain Elementary School, a lifelong New Englander, a Daughter of the American Revolution, and a member of the Congregationalist Church, Mary Hibbard Roberts died just last year. She was 96.

If only I’d known she was alive all those years — Of course, she would have never remembered me. I was just one of the probably 1,000-plus kids she’d called on the roll over her career. But I always remembered her and if I’d known she was alive, I would have written her a letter and told her exactly that.

After all, we always remember our good teachers, and, like I said, she was a good one. Indeed, during that wonderful year of birthday parties and Christmas plays, Mrs. Hibbard had gently orchestrated and softly engineered something very powerful: She had taught me how to read. It was her lasting gift to me, one I use every day. So, thank you, Mrs. Hibbard. I only wish I had said so while you were alive. And to all the other good teachers out there—those who struggle with the low pay and the challenges that come with your profession who get away with things my generation couldn’t — thank you for not giving up. It may take a half century, but one day some long-forgotten pupil will be writing about you.