After 39 years teaching full-time in the Pine Bluff School District, Virginia Hymes will be retiring in June. A native of Pine Bluff, Hymes was a child when she desired to become an educator. She and her sister, Nozetta Paschal, played with dolls, pretending to be teachers. A daughter of Viola Johnson and the late Willie Clyde Paschal, Hymes was raised by her grandparents, Matt Henry and Cozette Henry, while her parents moved to California to make a living. She began teaching art full-time at Pine Bluff High School in 1978, taught countless students, and advised them to pursue their dreams.
“I know this has been a beautiful ministry from the Good Lord and I take it very seriously,” Hymes said. “I believe in being a good steward over these children and in taking care of these kids. I pray the things I have impacted on their lives will be positive to them. When I think of Pine Bluff High School, I think about the kids. They're the reason I get up in the morning and get excited about coming to school. Thinking about some new ideas to reinvent some things we've done in the past.”
Recalling her own education, Hymes remembers many educators for impacting her life.
“I had good educators who made you want to come to school,” she said. “That's what I pass back to my kids. And I love learning. And I do know God put that dream [of teaching] in me at any early age.”
Married to Carlton Hymes, she endured the death of their only child, Ronnie Hymes, who suffered a heart attack at age 29 in 2000. Ronnie Hymes left behind his own sons, Kahmron Hymes and Xavius Hymes. Virginia Hymes also has two brothers, Bernard Paschal and Alvin Paschal.
Hymes enrolled at Arkansas AM&N, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, in 1972, majored in art, and graduated in 1976 with a bachelor's degree. She took additional classes at other institutions to further her training. Hymes began teaching in Illinois in 1976 and returned to Pine Bluff in 1977 to care for her grandparents. She worked in the Pine Bluff School District in 1977-1978 as a substitute teacher and was hired on a full-time basis in 1978.
“Kids look for places to go,” she said. “They are looking for an outlet to feel safe and socialize and work.”
Her colleague Vincent Bryant teaches science at Pine Bluff High School and credits her for being optimistic. Bryant has worked with Hymes for four years and is sad at her upcoming retirement.
“It's definitely been a pleasure,” Bryant said. “She does not have anything negative to say. She's always positive and upbeat.”
Bryant shared his recent meeting with one of Hymes' former students who recalled her fondly.
“She is such a joy to be around,” Bryant said. “She is very optimistic.”
Hymes said her greatest challenge revolves around a lack of time and a constrained budget. On a recent day in her classroom, many students asked Hymes not to retire.
Pine Bluff High School junior Tylor Johnson is a student in Hymes' class and also knows her from St. James United Methodist Church. He credited her for motivating him and enabling him to focus. He took her class last year to fill a time slot.
“She was always helpful, always patient, kind, and very courteous,” Johnson said. “Pretty much the all-around teacher. I took her class when I was a sophomore. … I was not really interested in art until I got in her class. Due to the impact she made on me last year, I decided to take Art II. She makes sure the positivity is spread throughout the class. She is responsible for binding us as a family.”
Pine Bluff High School sophomore Ashia Shelton credits Hymes for making sure students receive many opportunities and scholarships.
“I hate that she's leaving,” Shelton said.
Fellow sophomore Justin Thomasson expressed a similar sentiment for his favorite teacher, saying he is sad by her upcoming retirement. He is planning to write a poem to celebrate Hymes.
“I've learned a lot,” Thomasson said. “Her class helped me develop my skills and explain art better. I know different techniques: shading and blending.”
Pine Bluff High School senior Detron Haywood loved to paint from an early age. While he laments Hymes' upcoming retirement, he understands it.
“She has been here for a long time and she finally wants to take time off to spend time with her family,” Haywood said. “Taking her class, I learned the basic stuff on art and how to use different kinds of paints. She helped me to become better at what I do.”
Ashley Gragg attended Pine Bluff High School from 2011 to 2014, graduated as valedictorian and learned from Hymes. Gragg is currently a senior majoring in history and minoring in art and Spanish at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
She praised Hymes for being a mentor and a role model.
“The reason why I go to college for free is because she pushed me and exposed me to new opportunities,” Gragg said. “She keeps up with me every time I come home. She lets me talk to her students about college and life. That is what made me think about life after Pine Bluff High School. … She brought in alumni to be resources to current students. My best friend and I started a scholarship at Pine Bluff High School. She helped us organize its logistics. She is always checking on me making sure I am okay mentally. It is rare you meet teachers who care about you outside of school. I don't think they can ever fill her shoes. For a lot of years, she was our mother and grandmother.”
Gragg credits Hymes for allowing her to dream however she wanted and think however she wanted to think.
“Because there is no black and white; there is a gray area,” Gragg said. “She teaches her students to be free thinkers.”
Gragg recalled that when something controversial happened in the world, Hymes allowed her students to debate.
“Although I was a teenager, I felt my opinions were valued,” Gragg said.
As Hymes finishes her career, Gragg said she hopes her former teacher is finally able to put herself first. Gragg hopes that Hymes keeps her connection with Pine Bluff administrators and is allowed to host events.
Mattie P. Collins has known Hymes as a friend and colleague at Pine Bluff High School for 33 years. Collins started teaching at Pine Bluff High School in 1976.
“When I met her and listened to her priorities, I knew that we would become dear friends,” Collins said via email. “We had so much in common. We both loved our families, our students and our community. We are both die-hard Zebra Fans!”
Collins wishes Hymes enjoys her family and friends, continues to work with young people and travels. She has many fond memories of Hymes.
“Virginia and I enjoyed working together at PBHS,” Collins said. “I taught world history and she taught art. We taught lessons together and served as mentors to our wonderful students. We sponsored many clubs and organizations. The students loved and respected us and we loved and respected them! Therefore, we enjoyed teaching.”
“We worked across the hall from each other in the McGeorge Building and would spend our lunch hours encouraging students to study hard and work toward a successful future,” Collins said. “I am proud to report that the great majority of them are very successful. We raised our children together and traveled together. Our families are very close. One memorable occasion was when we took our grandchildren ranging from two to seven years old to Disney World. We had a ball. Our husbands were worn out.”
Hymes lamented three students who died during her career. Parius Hicks was shot to death in 2017. Artisha Rainey died in a car accident in 2014, and Kadedra Washington was shot to death in 2012.
She preaches respect to the teenagers.
“I loved Parius Hicks,” Hymes said. “I went to his funeral, I presented his family with a piece that he did. I had it framed. It was a torn paper. He got ready to do a creative color wheel. It was a peace sign. It was dripping the different colors like blood or tear drops.”
During a discussion in class, Hymes recalled Hicks politely telling her that she was not finished growing to convey the idea that she is still learning.
“Older people do need to learn,” Hymes said. “He was such a pleasant person. … Just a young talented person not just with his art but with music. I had him for sixth period. He would come in with his big hair standing up and talking fast.”
Hymes recalled Artisha Rainey had won a poster contest on the topic of violent crime. Hymes had just finished teaching Artisha the day she died and was devastated by the news.
“She was another talented student,” Hymes said.
Hymes recalled Kadedra Washington had been working on a project related to the prom. Kadedra was in 10th grade.
“She left my class in the seventh period,” Hymes said. “Those are the things a teacher hates to go through: losing a child. Kids and teachers have to have counseling.”
Hymes has also witnessed cultural changes in her classroom during a span of 40 years. Regardless of the given year, she thinks teenagers need parents to enforce discipline and prevent their children from being outside at 2 in the morning.
“As a teacher, these kids are our diamonds and our kids need to learn to listen,” Hymes said. “There are a lot of things that are taking place out there. And some things are not good. We are talking about things that help them.”
She recalls former students reconnecting and thanking her for fussing at them.
“I am a stickler for them getting a good education. I know not everybody is geared toward going to college. … Students want to be disciplined. I am still that old-school teacher and they know it. Students are great,” Hymes said. “You hear a lot about bullying. It's not good to say unkind words. They are using social media as a mean tool to cause or place harm on the child's mind.”
Former Major League Baseball player and Pine Bluff native Torii Hunter acknowledged his former teacher Virginia Hymes during a public speech in January 2017 in Pine Bluff. He was serving as the grand marshal of the parade celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Your life will follow your thinking,” Hunter said, adding that he “had so many players and teachers who pulled my ear,” noting his former Pine Bluff High School teacher Virginia Hymes.