Thelma Wyatt has been living her dream for 50 years.
Last month, that dream, the dream of being a teacher, came to an end with Wyatt’s retirement from Sussex II Prison in Waverly, but as she heads into the second phase of her life, the mother of two is looking forward to spending time with her already-retired husband.
“I’ve been living and working and loving it all along,” Wyatt said. “Hopefully I will have a lot of time to enjoy being retired, but it will be an adjustment.”
Wyatt was born in Richmond, the oldest of seven siblings. Her father was a painter, and when Wyatt was 10 years old, her dad decided it was time to move the family out of the big city.
“My father saw my two-year-old brother run into the street and said, ‘I’m moving my family out to the country.,’” Wyatt remembers.
The family was moved to Orange County, but Wyatt’s dad continued to maintain an apartment in Richmond and work as a painter, coming home to the country on weekends.
“Fridays were Hallelujah days to see Daddy coming down the road,” Wyatt said.
To pass the time, Wyatt and her siblings played school, with Wyatt always being the teacher. She said she learned very early in life that teaching was what she wanted to do. Her love of learning, of reading, and wanting to help others do the same drove her toward this goal from the day she realized she wanted to do it.
Her parents, she said, always encouraged her success as well, adding there was never any doubt she was going to be attending college after high school.
But first, in an era of segregation, she had to complete high school, which meant riding a bus to school near Culpeper, a long ride each way.
“Orange County did not have a high school for blacks,” Wyatt said. “We were bussed to George Washington Carver Regional High School, and we didn’t question that.”
Looking back, Wyatt added her siblings were among the very first to integrate Orange County Schools.
“I was away at college by that time and didn’t realize how much they were going through,” Wyatt said.
At Virginia State College in Petersburg, which is now Virginia State University, Wyatt took her next steps toward her dream career, again living in a time she sees was so different than today.
“Freshman girls had to be in by eight, seniors at 12,” Wyatt said. “There were no co-ed dorms.”
Wyatt graduated from college in 1966 with a degree in English. She would later add a Masters Degree in reading from the University of Virginia.
She also reunited with the man who would become her husband, Armand Wyatt, who had come to Carver Regional as a teacher when Wyatt was a senior.
“I just saw him as a teacher,” Wyatt said. “But four years later he came to Virginia State’s campus and he asked me out. After much hesitation, I accepted. At the time it was hard to look at him as anything other than a teacher.”
The pair married in 1968, with Armand teaching in Franklin City Schools.
In September, 1966, Wyatt began her teaching career, teaching at the all-black Riverview High School in Southampton County.
From 1966 to 1970, Wyatt taught at Riverview, but in 1970, Riverview would become Riverview Junior High School and Southampton County High School, which had previously been all white, would integrate, she said.
Wyatt remained at Riverview, with her approach unchanged by integration.
“I had always treated the students with respect,” Wyatt said. “So they respected me. I had a reputation as a teacher who had standards and wanted students to meet those standards.”
In 1998, with her husband already retired, Wyatt wanted a job closer to Waverly, and so she retired from Southampton County Public Schools — she had moved to Southampton County High School in 1981 -— with 32.5 years experience and took a job with the Department of Correctional Education at the newly built Sussex II Prison.
The school at Sussex II opened in March 1999, and Wyatt had to learn to teach subjects other than English, but she was able to hire inmate teacher’s aides to help, all with the purpose of helping prisoners get their GEDs.
Wyatt said she never had any cause to hesitate in her decision to teach at the prison, nor did she have any cause for fear.
“I guess I didn’t have sense enough to be afraid,” Wyatt said. “I have felt any fear. I know in my heart I treat people like human beings and the guys knew it was a privilege to go to school. I didn’t know of any teacher being threatened and several inmates told me if somebody did try to hurt me they would take care of it for me.”
Wyatt said she saw no significant difference in teaching kids and prisoners, and she loved it just as much in Sussex II as she did at Southampton County High School.
However, she said she is starting to wear down physically, and it’s time to get out while she can enjoy time with her husband. Wyatt added she timed her second retirement after 17 and a half years at the prison to coincide with the expiration of her teaching license, and so help her in making her decision permanent.
As for retirement, she volunteers to read to kids in Dinwiddie and will continue to do so. She also said there’s one thing about her that certainly will not change in retirement.
“I’m going to continue to enjoy life,” Wyatt said. “I’m going to continue to learn, I’m going to travel, read and continue to show learning can be fun.”
Featured Photo: Roger Bell
Retired Sussex II Prison teacher Thelma Wyatt sits outside the facility for a photograph shortly before her retirement became effective July 1.