Marie Downs reflects on a rewarding career in the classroom

By JAMIE PATTERSON,

From the time she was only five years old, Marie Downs always knew she would become a teacher.

For nearly five decades, Downs was the teacher who passed on knowledge, but she was also a friend both inside and outside the classroom.

No matter where you turn in Yazoo, there are still former students who remember Downs, the teacher who made learning fun.

“I personally didn’t have Mrs. Downs as a teacher, but that didn’t matter to her,” said Meredith Muizers. “To Mrs. Downs, we were all her babies. She loved us, she believed in us and she cheered us on. That’s something she continues to do every day, no matter where we are. She inspires us to be not only better students but better people. She believes that we can take on the world, and she is our biggest cheerleader.”

Downs was born on Aug. 14, 1943 in Sunflower County to Ed and Lavonne Kirkley. She was born inside the family home and would grow up an only child on the family farm.

“I was my Daddy’s only boy you could say,” Downs said, with a smile. “We worked and played together. I was driving trucks and tractors by the time I was eight years old. It was all I knew.”

Downs’ father was an avid fisherman who loved hand grabbing. It was fishing that brought the two even closer together.

“Daddy tied me down with a sack full of bricks and jammed me in a hole so he could get catfish,” Downs said. “I didn’t know any better.”

Downs attended school in Indianola. She admits she was a little bit of a rebel.

“I wrote on the bathroom walls, and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” she said, with a laugh. “But I loved school, and I had that school teacher personality.”

Downs can remember her first “student.”

“I was five years old, and I went to go see a movie,” she said. “When I got home, I sat my dog down and told her all about the movie. I would teach her about books because I loved to read. I knew I was going to be a teacher.”

Although Downs struggled with grammar, she had no idea it would be the subject she would later teach. She thought, at first, she would become a home economics instructor.

“My lowest grade was always in English, but I loved literature,” she said. “I thought if I went to college and majored in English, I would never make it. But here we are now. I taught English for 48 years.”

Downs would earn her Bachelors and Masters degrees from Delta State University. It was also there that she would meet her future husband, Bill. He was a Yazoo boy that she admits she wasn’t too impressed with at first.

“But he grew on me,” she laughed. “We’ve been married 55 years.”

Downs began teaching at Leland High School. She was only 21 years old, a few years older than many of her students.

“The first few days I cried,” Downs said. “But Bill told me I needed to tell the students who was the boss or either quit. I did just that, and apparently it worked.”

When Bill’s job transferred the family back to Yazoo City, Downs decided to find a teaching job in the area. She had met Superintendent Harold Kelly at a meeting in Jackson, and he remembered her.

“On May 15, Kelly told me I had a job if I wanted it,” she said. “I didn’t even fill anything out. I eventually filled out my application after two years.”

Downs taught at Yazoo City High School from 1968 until 1992. She would then join the Benton Academy family and remain there until she retired in 2005.

“I always loved teaching,” she said. “I have former students who still like me. The kids and I got along well. Even the ones who maybe didn’t like me as a teacher are now my friends as adults. I was always a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of person.”

The teaching bug must run in the family because Downs’ son Jeremi is now an elementary teacher and coach.

And Yazoo City was the place Downs developed close friendships with her students. It was home.

“We always had good students in Yazoo City,” she said. “In 1968, we were one of the top schools in the state. Granted things are not like they were years ago. But we still have some good kids here.”

Downs is most proud of sponsoring the debate team, the student council and the Academy Bowl at Yazoo City High School. At Benton Academy, she was the Academy Bowl sponsor, a tennis coach, a softball coach and the junior and senior class sponsor. She was selected as the Star Teacher for three years. And the BA annual was dedicated to her.

Flipping through a book her BA students made for her, she smiles and recalls each child’s name. The book is filled with personal notes that she routinely looks over to this day.

“This was really special to me,” she said, holding the book.

And her students remember her.

“Her laugh could light up the whole room,” said Besheka Coleman. “She didn't accept any excuses and didn't accept anything other than your very best. All of her students were family and what we went through, she went through with us. I took what I learned from Mrs. Downs, and it is still with me today. She remembers us all by name when she sees us around town, and she always has encouraging words.”

“She taught me literature in high school,” said Jo Ann Campbell. “I remember her making the stories come alive. I worked for hours on my project for Canterbury Tales, but it was fun. I was the STAR Student my senior year, and I chose her as STAR Teacher.”

“She gave us the ability to grow creatively and to put aside our fear of speaking,” said Tom McAllister. “She was that teacher that you looked forward seeing every day. We were her kids. She helped us grow into more than we believed we could.”