Never Met a Stranger: Memory amid the formulae


By T.W. Burger

I remember Nell Payne, who tried valiantly to teach me Algebra in the 9th grade, in what we then called Junior High in Athens. I remember her as tall and somewhat angular, with red hints in her flyaway brown hair.

To be accurate, her hair arrived at school every morning tucked neatly into a bun atop her head. By afternoon, however, her strenuous attempts to shake algebraic consciousness into her charges had left long strands of her locks to break free and wave around her head like the arms of kids on a roller coaster.

She was country, very kindhearted, and really wanted us to understand algebra.

It worked for some of us. I would peer with envy at some of my classmates noodling across their notebook paper or across the board, arcane symbols and squiggles looping along behind pencil or chalk. I wasn’t peeping the way a cheater does. One needs to know what one is seeing to get any good out of it. My look was akin to the way my cats watch the cursor grasshopper its way across my screen, fascinated and mystified at once.

In physical appearance and bearing, she made me think me think of the Nashville comedienne Minnie Pearl, and seemed to have the same kindliness.

By the afternoon classes, when I’d see her, she seemed a little winded, and perhaps a little discouraged from her spirit crashing in wave after wave upon the stony shores of our determined ignorance.

When I finally thought too look up her obit, I was chagrined to discover that my own ignorance and “math-proofing” was compounded by the fact that Mrs. Payne was obviously very good, generally, at what she did.

She graduated with honors from Hart County High School at age 15 and was a graduate of the University of Georgia with a Bachelor of Science Degree. Dr. Payne also received her Masters, Six-Year Degree and Doctor of Education Degree from the University of Georgia, all likely while she was trying to enter algebra into the Commodore 64 of my brain.

The obit said that Dr. Payne received “Teacher Award in Science” in 1971, “Teacher of the Year” for Clarke County in 1976, first place runner-up in the “Georgia Teacher Hall of Fame” in 1979 and Tenth District STAR teacher in 1980. Her teaching specialties were Advanced Placement Calculus, Trigonometry and Advanced Algebra.”

In 1982, at the age of 66, she became a teaching missionary in Zimbabwe. When she died at 86 in 2003, she was at work on a second devotional book.

Never mind that I left her class at the end of the 9th grade with a solid “D” average; she has always been one of my favorite teachers, despite being absolutely immune to what she taught. I am really happy that she came to the end of a long, useful life full of honors.


T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.

He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.

He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”

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