At 88 years old, Ginger Terrell has taught bilingual students all over Texas and helped set up schools for migrant children across the United States, but these days she spends her time at Bell’s Hill Elementary School in Waco.
For five hours a day, five days a week, Terrell tutors bilingual students at the elementary school, where she has her own parking spot and a place among the faculty.
Lately, Terrell has been helping fourth-grade students prepare for upcoming state standardized tests. Her job, she said, is to “fill in holes.”
“Because I’m bilingual, I can fill in those gaps, but it is just a miracle how fast they learn,” Terrell said Friday after finishing her shift for the day. “I think, you sit me down in Russia, how long would it take me?”
Every July, Bell’s Hill Principal Rebekah Mechell calls Terrell to see if the certified bilingual tutor will return for the school year. When Terrell agrees to return, teachers scramble to fill up her time.
“We love Mrs. Terrell. She’s got a deep connection with her students,” Mechell said. “She really helps with the newcomers. It’s not often you can find a certified tutor who is bilingual and who has the real heart for the kids, as well.”
Terrell mostly works with children who are new to the school and do not yet know English. She grew up in Goliad, about 30 miles southwest of Victoria and steeped in Mexican culture, before attending Baylor University, where she majored in education and Spanish.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t speak Spanish,” she said.
Terrell’s mother did not speak Spanish, but her father did and insisted she speak proper Spanish, no slang. But his adherence to correct Spanish grammar helped her succeed at Baylor.
“When you grow up with it being learned correctly, then you speak correctly,” she said. “If you take something out that’s wrong, like ‘ain’t,’ and put something else in, that’s a lot of work.”
In 1947, Terrell started taking classes at Baylor when she was 16 years old. She attended class with many World War II veterans who were going to school on the G.I. Bill, so there were no all-night keggers or raucous parties. She said everyone was focused on completing their degrees and graduating, and the work was intense. She described the experience as isolating.
After graduating from Baylor in 1951, Terrell returned to Goliad to teach as one of two bilingual teachers in the district at the time. She was assigned to second grade, but she and the other bilingual teacher taught all the Spanish-speaking students.
“At that time, it was against the law to speak Spanish in Texas schools,” Terrell said. “We kept what we called a ‘state register.’ It was a yellow book, and every teacher was responsible. At the end of that first year, I counted I had 62. I had a lot of migrant children that came and went, but from start to finish, I had handled 62 children. That was my first year of teaching. I thought, ‘Well, if you can do this, you can do about anything.’”
In 1968, Terrell started teaching at a school for migrant children in McAllen. At the time, educators from all over the country would flock to McAllen to observe the methods Terrell and other teachers used. She said the school would hold PTA meetings at 8:30 at night when the parents came in from the fields and that she knew her time was short with many of her students because of the nomadic nature of their parents’ jobs.
“They would disappear. We’d see them the next year in late October,” she said. “We were through by Mother’s Day. That was about as late as we could ever hold those children, and they were off to go here and there, get beans in Michigan and sugar beets in Idaho, tomatoes in Florida, riding in the back of a truck. But out of all the teaching I’ve ever done, that was the best.”
Terrell’s students taught her many things, especially not to underestimate the children sitting in her classroom.
“I had a little boy who would not do anything, wouldn’t even put his name on the paper, day after day after day after day,” she said. “And I didn’t know what to do with him but to prepare those parents for the fact that there was no way he was going to make third grade.”
So, with the boy’s written work still being ignored, Terrell gave him several World Book Encyclopedias to read. When she tested him at the end of the year, he had improved five times as much as required to advance to third grade.
“He was an auditory learner,” she said. “He was gifted and talented, and he just wouldn’t go with all that mundane stuff about put it down on a piece of paper. That’s just not where he functioned, but did I learn a lot about don’t sell kids short.”
Terrell taught in other parts of the state — Dallas, East Texas, Port Arthur — and had the opportunity to travel when she wrote curriculum for an Austin-based organization, but McAllen always had her heart. She returned there to work with children.
“I like those migrants,” she said. “My friends in McAllen are telling me if we had Cesar Chavez back, you wouldn’t have that mess on that border. He had his ways of protecting the American migrant worker, and he made sure somebody wasn’t undercutting them, that they would keep their jobs. The poorest of the poor, dearest of the dear.
“They are people who have absolutely nothing and appreciate everything. In Spanish, you have a word for teacher, ‘maestra,’ but that could be somebody that’s learning a trade. They never referred to you as a ‘maestra.’ They referred to you as a ‘profesora.’ You would have thought I was the Queen of England. They’re so grateful that you love their children, and they would say, ‘I don’t have anything to give you.’ And you’d say, ‘No, you don’t understand what you’ve given me.’”