My best teacher: Miss McMahan by Dolly Parton

On National Teachers' Day, the beloved country singer remembers her favourite teacher, Miss McMahan

Dolly Parton

In my early years, we lived up in the mountains (in Tennessee). We went to a little school where kids from the first to the eighth grade were all in the same room. There probably weren't much more than 12 to 15 of us altogether. We had different teachers who came now and then, but the one who stood out for me was Archie Ray McMahan.

She was one of those teachers who was very motherly, and she took her time with each individual child the way a good mother would. Every child loved her. She was beautiful to me: about medium build, with short, soft-brown hair that she wore short and permed. Her skin was very clear and she had beautiful blue eyes. She dressed so well and smelled good - we were little country kids in the mountains and didn't have a bathtub.

My parents knew that she was our teacher, but my mother didn't get out much - she had one (baby) on her and one in her for as long as I could remember - and my dad was always out working. So unless there was trouble, they didn't really get a chance to be that involved in our education.

It was always hard for me to concentrate in school. I hated it. My mind was always somewhere else. I was a dreamer and couldn't wait to get on with my life.

We were very poor; we didn't have the decent clothes and decent food that makes school a little more comfortable. (At high school) a lot of the parents didn't want their kids running with me because I looked so cheap and tacky. But the ones looking so prim and proper were the ones running around doing all the bad stuff.

I did have friends at school - you always find your own. My very best friend of a lifetime, Julie Ogle, I met in the third grade (Year 4). Even when we went on to high school, we took all the same classes and we are still together. She travels with me now.

I didn't do a whole lot of singing in school - most of it was outside, going back and forth to radio stations and any place I could get a chance to sing. Julie and I signed up to the school band just so I could be close to the music, and I played the side drum. We would play at the ball games but I had a lot of work to do at home, so I didn't get the chance to be a cheerleader or be involved in any of that stuff. Being from such a large, poor family (Dolly is from a family of 12 children), everyone had work to do - and then I had my music going on. So I was writing my songs, dreaming my dreams.

I passed school, but barely. Graduating from high school was my own idea - I didn't have to go to school after eighth grade (Year 9) but I thought I should go and learn something and I didn't want to leave home until I was 18.

I went to Nashville on a Saturday morning, straight after graduating on a Friday night back in 1964. My folks knew of my dreams and my plans. My mother was very encouraging, but my daddy didn't want me to go - he was afraid something bad was going to happen. But they wished me well.

Through the years, Archie Ray stayed in touch with me. I try to see her when I can. She is old now, but still young in spirit.

Dolly Parton was talking to Meabh Ritchie. This piece was first published in Tes magazine on March 12, 2010. 


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