When she was 14 years old, her teacher was pushing her in her wheelchair.
Jewell Massey looked down at her hands. She was fussing about her hands. She hated her hands. She did not think they were pretty.
“I’ve got my daddy’s hands,” she said.
“But they’re such capable hands,” said her teacher, Ruth Walker.
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When the 14-year-old girl grew up and became a 41-year-old teacher from Macon, those hands were wrapped in glory on the Sunday night of Aug. 28, 1988.
She clutched a dozen roses in her right hand and a microphone in the other. A crown was placed on her head as the winner of the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant. The smile on her face was almost as wide as the stage itself.
Richard Simmons, the famous exercise guru and television personality, was the master of ceremonies. He gave her a hug and told the audience at the 17th annual pageant in Mobile, Ala., that her mother ‘‘must have known something when she named her Jewell.”
At the pageant, she gave out T-shirts bearing the message: “Something special will happen today because of a teacher.”
Ruth Walker was the teacher who made a difference in her life. Walker taught a special education class in Knoxville, Tenn., in the 1950s and ’60s. Jewell stayed in that same class from the third grade through the 12th.
Walker introduced her to everything from algebra to diagramming sentences. She showed her how to be an independent thinker.
She collected butter pat dishes. Her husband taught at the University of Tennessee.
She encouraged Jewell and loved her like a daughter.
Years later, at her funeral, the minister who delivered the eulogy mentioned Jewell in the same breath as Ruth’s own daughters. They were that close.
Jewell became a teacher herself, and once invited Walker to Macon to speak to her gifted students at Springdale Elementary and show her off for show-and-tell.
After living in Macon for the past 40 years, including 26 years as a teacher in the Bibb County public schools, Jewell is moving back to Knoxville in a few weeks to live next door to her sister.
There aren’t nearly enough boxes to pack all the memories and move them 294 miles up to Rocky Top. There are poems and freckled-faced drawings her students made for her.
She has sold her house. She has always found joy in nature and will miss the yard where she became a master gardener and identified more than three dozen species of birds.
When Denny Jones, of Fickling and Co., presented the offer on her house with a closing date of Sept. 17, Jewell said it was all meant to be.
“That is the birthday of my guardian angel,” she said.
Ruth Walker was that guardian angel. She turned out to be one of many.
Jewell was born in Tazewell, Tenn., about 45 miles northeast of Knoxville. Her family was so poor her mother, Leetie, cut up old petticoats to make diapers.
Her father was in and out of the family’s life, mostly out. They moved to Knoxville to live with her Aunt Thelma.
In 1950, when Jewell was 3, she and her 2-year-old brother, O.D., contracted polio a few days apart. She remembers being in the same hospital room with him, an iron lung next to her bed. He scooted his crib over to be close to her. The only part of her body she could move was her left hand. Her father abandoned the family during the time she and her brother were in isolation.
O.D. made a full recovery from his polio and later became a Navy pilot who flew with the Blue Angels.
The disease left Jewell crippled. One day, when she was 4, her mother was taking her to physical therapy on the city bus. A woman noticed the braces on Jewell’s legs and back. “What awful sin did you commit to have a child like that?” the woman asked.
The following year, Dr. Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine, which was made available to the public in 1955.
But, by then, she had developed scoliosis and was placed in Ruth Walker’s special education class after spending three years in a homebound program. It was a rag-tag class of misfits the school system did not mainstream.
“Most of the kids were mentally challenged or terminally ill,” Jewell said. “We never felt like we fit in. We were so isolated we even had our own lunchroom. I guess the way we talked was disturbing. And we drooled when we ate.”
Her mother, who had only a fifth-grade education, worked in a hospital kitchen at night to provide for the family. When her father reappeared for a brief period of time, they moved into the housing projects. She read books from the bookmobile by the dim light of a 25-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling.
On several occasions, Jewell went to Warm Springs for physical therapy or to have surgery. Some of her happiest memories and strongest friendships were forged there.
She became a poster child for the Shriners and the March of Dimes. “My 15 minutes of fame,” she said. She also made public appearances for Easter Seals.
When she left for college at Lincoln Memorial University, one of her relatives said to her mother: “I don’t know why you’re sending her over there. They’re going to send her right back.”
Said Jewell: “They did — four years later as an honor graduate. If I had known she said that, I might have come out a valedictorian.”
She spent her first two years teaching in Jacksonville, Fla., then left for a teaching opportunity in Macon because it was halfway home to Knoxville.
She never intended to stay 40 years, and it’s a wonder she didn’t pack up and leave after her first year in the Bibb County public schools.
It was 1970, and the first year of integration. Her first assignment was teaching science at the Ballard B Middle School.
“It was jumping from the skillet into the fire,” she said. “Ballard had formerly been the all-black school. There was nothing to work with. Parts of the blackboard were missing. There weren’t any blinds on the windows.”
She was there for three years, then taught children with behavior disorders in the system for five years. She would cry every morning and drink Mylanta antacid straight from the bottle.
But she didn’t quit. She didn’t give up. By 1979, she was teaching gifted elementary school students. It would be her passion for the next 18 years.
Many of her students had never been around an adult in a wheelchair, much less had a teacher who rolled to work in one. They adored being around her as much as she loved teaching them. She would let them sign up to push her to lunch, and she would allow them to take turns riding in the wheelchair when they graduated from the sixth grade.
When she won the Ms. Wheelchair America in 1988, it was the first time she had ever competed in anything. She had seen an announcement in The Telegraph about the statewide contest in Warm Springs. She entered and won, then went on to the national competition in Mobile.
Her mama came to live with her in 1982, and Jewell was her mother’s caregiver late in life when she developed Alzheimer’s. (She died in 2008.) Jewell called taking care of her mom one of her “greatest privileges.” She learned to change her mother’s bed with one hand holding on to a wheel and the other for balance.
And now it’s time for Jewell to go back to Knoxville, leaving the tug of one home for another. She has been an inspiration to so many folks in this town. She left me with one of her favorite quotations, often attributed to Will Rogers.
“I want people to know why I look this way. I’ve traveled a long way, and some of the roads weren’t paved.”