As Georgia Cole leans back in her easy chair with her eyes closed, she can still see the faces of Janice, Darryl, Beverly, Chris, Jennifer, Kevin and Carolyn.
A smile spreads slowly across her face as she remembers, "her children" — students she taught at Lexington School.
There were hundreds of them during the 24 years she taught there and they all had something in common: They were white.
The year was 1968, and Georgia Cole, an African-American teacher school officials knew little about, was in uncharted territory as desegregation was still a scary concept for blacks and whites alike.
She'd heard rumblings that residents in the community didn't want black teachers at their school. But Cole had a lot to teach those children. She was ready for the challenge and armed, she said, "with the peace of God," as she entered a situation where race relations were strained at best.
Her husband, Will, was against it. He was concerned for her safety.
"I never feared (for myself) going there, but I admit I was a little concerned for my two little girls, Patshenia and Katernia, who'd be going to school with me," she said. "I kept a close check on them. I told myself and them, ‘If you treat people right, they'll do the same.' "
When Cole arrived at Lexington, she was 31 and had 10 years of experience teaching in Florence.
Edna McGee, who is white, remembers the day she carried her daughter to Cole's classroom on the first day of school. The principal walked along the sidewalk with the two and asked McGee if she had a problem with her daughter being taught by "a colored woman."
"I looked at him and said, ‘none whatsoever,' " she recalled. "My daughter will tell you to this day that (Cole) taught her things she still uses in her daily life. She gave her all to those kids and they were her No. 1 priority.
"My younger daughter was in her class three years later and had the same experience. Today, they still keep in touch with (Cole). She's that teacher who really made a difference in the lives of children. And we grew to be the best of friends, and when our health allows, we go looking at antiques. She's the truest, most genuinely honest friend I've ever had."
Cole attended college at Alabama State in Montgomery during the height of the civil rights movement. She said she kept a low profile and didn't get involved as an activist, although she watched closely.
She'd made a promise to her mother not to get into trouble. She knew involvement in "the movement" could ultimately lead to her arrest or even worse.
"I desperately wanted an education, and I recognized what a gift it was," she said. "If I'd messed up, my mama would have yanked me out of there and brought me home. I couldn't risk it."
She grew up on a farm with her five siblings. Her father and grandfather were bricklayers and her mother encouraged all her children to get a college education, which they did.
Her grandfather was particularly skilled at his trade. Cole said a white man helped her grandfather learn to lay brick at the age of 14, enabling him to help his family financially. But as masterful as he was at laying brick, he knew if he could only read he'd be much better, she said.
Cole said her grandfather struck a deal with a white woman who lived nearby, who just happened to need rails for her fence. He'd cut the rails and provide the labor if she would teach him to read. She did, and a friendship between the families began, Cole said.
"We knew there were race problems, but we had white people coming to our house all the time, so we co-existed just fine," Cole said.
She said her family fared well as her father and brother worked on a former plantation, cotton farming.
"One year we made 100 bales of cotton, each one weighing 500 pounds," she said.
While blacks working on the cotton farm might have been all the young white students in Lexington knew about them, Cole wanted to change that and steered clear of politics.
There was virtually no teaching of black history in 1968, but Cole said she knew those children needed an understanding of race.
"I knew some of them had parents who didn't like the idea of them having a black teacher, but I figured if I could show them I was a good teacher and a good person, they'd learn more than anything I could tell them about blacks," Cole said. "They were my babies, and I loved them.
"I told them I was their mother while I was at school and that I wanted them to do right and live right. I taught them everything I knew — how to read the Bible and be blessed. I told them to buy good clothes so they were always prepared for any situation and that a penny saved is a penny earned."
Those words weren't lost on Kevin Creekmore, who now coaches and teaches government/economics at Brooks High School in Killen. He was a fourth-grader at Lexington School under Cole's tutelage.
While he remains close friends with Cole today, he said it's that one school year, and one class lesson in particular, that forever changed him.
"We'd just finished a unit on the Civil War and Mrs. Cole was going around the room asking kids who they thought should have won the war. She called on me and asked who I wished had won. I thought for a second and said, ‘The South, because I'm a Southerner.'
She looked at me with the kindest expression on her face and said, ‘Do you know where I'd be today if the South had won?' I was crushed. I got it, completely. Here's this woman who meant so much to all of us and she'd just brought all that state rights stuff down to nothing. I looked at her and said, ‘No, Mrs. Cole, not in a million years would I want that to happen to you.' "
Creekmore said he shares that memory with his class every year. And, he makes sure his students know Cole, even if only through that anecdote.
"It's her very being that just breaks down barriers," he said. "I make it my goal to teach my students about her and other local African-Americans who contributed so greatly to the society we've enjoyed all these years. I'm 46 years old, and I hold out hope that all this (race stuff) is about to be over."
Creekmore credits his parents with raising him right, with what he calls the right views on humanity. In a sense, he said, his upbringing prior to age 9 prepared him for the lessons he'd learn later from Cole.
He recalls a family outing when he was about 6, where his dad drove up to a four-way stop in Elgin where the Ku Klux Klan was collecting money. His father rolled down the window and said simply, "I'd prefer not to give."
The 6-year-old Creekmore felt a surge of fear well up within him and he asked his father, "Dad, is he going to hurt us?"
"My father said, ‘That's a chance we're going to take,' and I thought right then, ‘Well, I can do this, too.' "
Cole, now 75, retired in 1992. Patshenia Cole said for many years she didn't know the influence her mother had on students.
"I just knew her job was to teach, but it seemed parents were always requesting to have their kids in her class," Patshenia said. "When she first got to Lexington, her students made the highest reading scores in Alabama. That kind of thing wasn't really publicized back then, but people knew how good she was. And pretty soon, all kinds of people wanted their kids in her class."
She said she only remembers one other black family at Lexington school while she and her sister were there. About 1973, she said, people started "mellowing out and warming up.
"We continue to hear comments about her and the life lessons she taught," Patshenia said. "Kids just don't get that kind of teaching so much anymore. She was good at book teaching. Real good, in fact. But she was great at teaching children how to live good lives. She had a connection with those students."
Cole keeps in touch with her students, as she lives about 10 miles from the school. Whenever possible, she attends special events in the lives of her students.
"I have to say that all my children have done quite well," she said. "Some might live thousands of miles away, but to me, they've always just been right here in my heart."
Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.