My students often tell me, after the standard first-day introductions, that they’ve never had a teacher like me before. When I first began teaching at twenty-two, just a few years older than most of my college-freshman students and younger than some, that statement troubled me. Was I doing it wrong? Was I doomed to be labeled “that weird teacher” for posterity? What I first took offense at I now take as a compliment, for such a statement usually means that I contradict, and thus work to expand, their preconceived, oversimplified notions of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be an authority figure, or what it looks like to endeavor to be both of those things at once.
As I get older, though, I’m less disturbed and more gratified by the supposed contradictions that make me who I am. I am also driven to look backward in order to look forward: to explore the women in my life who modeled those beautiful complexities of feminine power and helped me appreciate their value. Chief among those women is my great-grandmother, or “Gram.” She died when I was only eight years old, but in that short time, she taught me two things above all: to work hard at whatever I chose to do, and to always have compassion for others, because you never know what they may be suffering. This essay is my way of paying tribute to her, and to those values. Even as I have gone through the process of writing it, I feel that she is still teaching and encouraging me. The essay is not exhaustive, as it doesn’t cover her entire life. Moreover. I do not claim to be adept even at the amateur genealogy attempted in it, but the knowledge I gained through this research was certainly interesting to grapple with.
Robie Sarah Martin was born May 7, 1903 to George William “Billy” Martin and Pearle Benson in Brantley, Georgia. She was the oldest of five children (two boys and three girls), only four of whom survived childhood. Both of her brothers, Gilbert and Willard, died before I was born, but figured prominently in stories my grandmother told me about her own childhood. They, along with their mother Pearle, did a lot to take care of my grandmother and great aunt when they were children, because their father was not around and my Gram was busy working to support them. When thinking about the ways that my Gram contradicts my ideas of traditional gender roles—she was a single working mother during the Great Depression—such familial support is of central importance. She was able to work outside the home and support her community as a schoolteacher to underserved populations—lower-income students and students of color in an era where White teachers did not often teach such students—because she knew her children were being cared for. When my mother would visit her in the summers when she was a child, she remembers that Gram often used money from her own pocket to buy food, school supplies, and sometimes even clothes and shoes for her students because she knew they would only be able to concentrate on their work fully if their physical needs were met first. There are those values again, hard work and compassion, existing together.
Though I did not get to know Gram’s brothers, my Aunt Christine lived until I was eighteen. I remember her as loving and loud. She had an amazing laugh that could stop a room. She is, in my mind, the source of all the best and most gossipy family history. This will be important soon, but back to my Gram first.
She married Lloyd Carmack on January 4, 1924. She was twenty years old. They had three children over the next five years. First she gave birth to an unnamed baby boy, who was born and died on October 14, 1925, living only four hours. His death certificate lists his cause of death as “premature 6 ½ mo. baby” and is witnessed by G.W. Martin. These two pieces of information are both very important to my perception of my great-grandmother and the ways she shapes my perception of myself. First, I was also a premature baby, born at twenty-eight weeks gestation, or about seven months. Looking at the four-hour span between that unnamed baby’s birth and death dates and realizing we were very close to the same stage of development at birth makes me feel a range of emotions. I am grateful for the medical progress of the intervening six decades. Knowing how worried my own parents were, even after such advancements, I am heartbroken at the thought of what my great-grandmother must have been feeling in the moments surrounding her child’s birth and death. This brings me to the second important piece of information that death certificate contains: Gram’s father, not her husband, witnessed her son’s death officially. This perhaps suggests an early instance of Lloyd’s progressively more frequent absence in the lives of his children, and gives yet another example of the importance of familial support in times of crisis.
After that unfortunate birth came two daughters, Janis (my maternal grandmother), born January 17, 1927, and my great-aunt Jo Ann, born almost three years later, January 9, 1930. That this chain of events happened in so few years is remarkable to me, though I know it was not so for women at that time, as median age at first marriage was just over twenty-one for women in 1920, and only increased by a month or so over the next decade. Knowing that she went through three pregnancies and two births by the time she turned twenty-five gives me so much perspective on my own life; at twenty-nine, I have earned two advanced degrees, and have been married for almost six years to a supportive husband who is also an educator. Together, we have decided not to have our own children, but work hard to mentor a handful of important students and enrich their lives. I know that I could never make these choices without the women who came before me who dared to challenge social norms, as well as the brave people who went alongside them and provided stability and support.
After my grandmother and great-aunt are born, things seem to get even more complicated for Robie and Lloyd. The 1930 census, though it lists Robie as married, lists her (along with her two young daughters) as members of her father’s household, with Lloyd nowhere to be seen on the document. This corroborates the family lore courtesy of Aunt Christine, who never liked Lloyd, and who very much liked to tell about the time when, just after the birth of my great-aunt Jo Ann, he came the hospital to see her. Supposedly, his mistress was sitting outside in the car the whole time, and he didn’t stay more than a few minutes. The 1940 census is likewise interesting. By this time, Gram is her own head of household, but the “marital status” column on that census reveals more complexity as far as social roles are concerned. In that column, an “M” (for “married”) is visible, though it has been scribbled over, and when viewed through electronic databases like Ancestry.com, the entry in that column shows up categorized as “Divorced” when gone over with a computer’s mouse.
While I certainly have no way of confirming this, I would like to think that her liminal social position—confirmed on official government documents preserved in cyberspace—and the personal strength that it necessitated, made my Gram subject to similar comments from her students as I get from mine. I know that, like me, she was very passionate about social justice—that she believed race or poverty level should not keep a student from obtaining the very best education available to them. That passion motivated her to work very hard, and that hard work was evident to those who knew her. She taught for more than four decades, and was voted Teacher of the Year for the 1955-56 year. Even further proving her desire to benefit a community that needed her, she spent a portion of that time working in Swainsboro, Georgia, 135 miles away from her children, who, as I have said, lived with her family in Americus. Despite their distance, both of her children seem to have inherited their mother’s desire to serve others through their careers. My grandmother Janis spent the majority of her adult life working in hospital administration, while my great-aunt Jo Ann followed more directly in Gram’s footsteps. She was a teacher and school social worker from 1956 to 1989, and was named Georgia Social Worker of the Year in 1988. I am proud to be the most recent in this line of dedicated teachers and public servants, and the next time a student tells me they’ve never had a teacher like me before, I’ll remember my heritage and say, “Thank you.”
Victoria Reynolds Farmer has earned degrees in English from The University of Georgia (B.A. 2006; M.A. 2008) and Florida State University (Ph.D. 2014). She taught English Literature and Composition at the college level for seven years, and, in September 2015, will begin a new adventure as Senior Manager of Audience Development at Public Radio International. She lives in Minnetonka with her husband Michial and their two cats, Smerdyakov and Dorothy Parker.
 "United States Social Security Death Index," index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V99L-D3N : accessed 4 June 2015), Robie M Carmack, 09 Nov 1994; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database.
 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com . Accessed 4 June 2015.
 "Georgia Deaths, 1914-1927," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JDNJ-6B6 : accessed 4 June 2015), Carmack, 14 Oct 1925, Americus, Sumter, Georgia, United States; citing reference 28432, Department of Archives and History, Atlanta; FHL microfilm 2363746.
 US Bureau of the Census, Web: www.census.gov, Accessed 4 Jun 2015.
 Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002.
 Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.