Peninsula woman follows instinct to teach

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

Iola Banks of Kenai knew what she wanted to do in life at a young age.

"I think I taught all my life," she said. "There were a couple boys across the street when I was young. We would gather at each other's house and I was always teacher."

Banks' first classroom teaching experience came at the ripe old age of first grade.

"The teacher went home ill and left me in charge," she said. "It was my first real job. I took over, and I think I did a good job. We finished our lessons, and I took down the names of the children who didn't behave."

Throughout her school years, Iola was always the teacher's helper. When she was a senior, she served as a teacher's assistant in her algebra class. The teacher was a reverend who taught at two different schools, so he wasn't always prepared for class, she said.

If the students ran into a problem they had trouble with, Iola took it home and worked on it until she could solve it, then brought the answer back to class the next day -- although her enthusiasm sometimes got her in trouble.

"When he'd call on people for the answer I would have my hand up there and blurt out the answer," she said. "He'd say, 'Hush, girl!'"

In his class she did everything from teach lessons to grade papers.

"The year I graduated, the reverend retired," she said.

From her experience with that teacher, Iola learned to encourage kids to speak out.

"I will never use the word 'hush' with the children because I remember it from my days," she said.

Even though she started playing teacher when she was young, Iola's life took a different path before she took up education as a career. She grew up in Hodge, La., with her parents and three sisters. She always knew she wanted to go to college, and her father, in particular, told his kids education was important, she said.

When Iola graduated from high school, she got a scholarship to attend Grambling State University in Grambling, La. She started out studying business. At that point she wanted to get a degree in math, but changed her mind after walking in to the math classroom and finding it full of boys.

She spent her summers as a waitress in Denver, where her sisters had moved. She sent her wages home to her mother and lived off her tips, staying with her sisters. One summer evening she and a friend went out dancing and met two young men, one of whom would be her future husband, Lovell Banks.

Lovell gave Iola and her friend a ride home that evening and called Iola the next night to ask her out on a date. On their third date he proposed, although he would deny that he did it so soon, she said.

"He asked me to marry him, and I didn't want to so I said 'No, I'm not ready,'" she said. "But to make a long story short, we got married."

The two were married Oct. 8, 1954, when they were both 21. They lived in Denver and had four children there. Iola was pregnant during most of the time they were in Denver, she said, so she took some classes in nursing as a way to better take care of herself. From those classes, she got a job at Colorado Medical School and started thinking seriously of attending medical school herself.

Lovell was in the U.S. Air Force and was transferred to Texas in 1961. The family moved and Iola enrolled in a nursing program at San Antonio College and began working as a practical nurse at a Catholic hospital. Before she could graduate, Lovell was transferred to Eielson Air Force Base and the family moved to Fairbanks in 1965.

It was in Alaska that Iola became reacquainted with her love for teaching.

She worked as a nurse when she first arrived and was supposed to take classes to finish her nursing degree. Before doing so, though, she heard the school district allowed people to substitute teach for 20 days at a time with only two years of college.

She applied for a substitute teaching job, came home that night and prayed to get it.

"I said, "If I just get two days a month in teaching than I'll give up nursing.' And I got all the work I needed."

Iola was hired to take over a fourth-grade class in North Pole. She dropped nursing altogether and concentrated on teaching and taking adult education classes.

Nursing had been a convenient occupation for her, since she could work at night while Lovell watched the kids, but teaching was her first love.

There was one experience in particular that convinced her of her calling.

"I had a lady come in and she was very sick. Somehow you think if you work your hardest you're going to save them. I worked my hardest and she died. I was crying and one of the doctors said, 'Sometimes you do all you can do and the patient dies.' One thing with children is they learn, they don't die. I liked that a lot better."

But Iola's position in North Pole proved to be an adjustment, as well.

"When I went there they weren't really used to people like me," she said, referring to her race. "Parents would come get their kids, they never looked at me or spoke to me."

She didn't know how else to handle the situation, she said, so she ignored it and just kept teaching.

At the end of her 20 days in the class, she told the students she had to leave and they would get a permanent teacher.

"They said, 'We will not listen to a new teacher.' The parents all came, and the kids were crying. They said, 'We really appreciate you teaching my child.'"

The principal met with Iola and told her he believed she belonged in teaching. He wrote a letter to the superintendent on her behalf and promised her if she went back to school and got a degree in education, the school would give her a job.

Iola attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks and got a degree in elementary education in 1967. From there she was hired as an aide in a second-grade class, but ended up teaching the class.

This was yet another learning experience for her.

"I went to a segregated school in Louisiana and I had all these notions about children," she said. "I had a concern that all people from other races were probably prejudiced, and I wasn't too interested in working with people like that. But kids have their own ideas."

During one class, the students were playing "The Farmer in the Dell," and a little blonde girl played the mother who chose the son.

"When the girl took a husband she got another Caucasian," Iola said. "Then when she chose a son she chose a black boy. ... It taught me children are not naturally prejudiced, they are taught it."

At the end of that school year, Lovell was transferred to Springfield, Mass., so the family moved again. Iola got a job teaching fourth grade.

She had one student who stayed up late at night and came to class tired, not ready to do his work.

"I told him, 'You will get your assignment done or you will not leave here and I stood at the door and started grading papers at the end of the day," Iola said.

The boy was stubborn and sat there until his mother showed up a while later. Once Iola explained the situation, the boy's mother told him to get to work and she'd be back later to pick him up.

"With children you have to be strict sometimes and you can't let them tell you what they're going to do or they will come to class and sleep," she said.

While the family stayed in Springfield, Lovell served a tour of duty in Vietnam. After he returned, he was transferred back to Alaska.

"I didn't really want to come here because I had gotten so attached to my (school) children," Iola said. "I didn't think I could love any kids as much as the ones I had in Massachusetts. But children are children, and I loved every class."

Lovell was assigned to Wildwood Air Force Station, so the family moved to Kenai. Iola got a job teaching sixth grade at Kenai Elementary that year, now the Boys and Girls Club building.

The next year she moved on to Soldotna Elementary and spent five years teaching fifth grade. Next she transferred to Sears Elementary in Kenai and taught fourth grade for a year. From there she went back to teaching fourth grade at Kenai Elementary for several years, she said.

Once Mountain View Elementary was built in 1988, Iola taught fourth grade there until her health forced her to retire in 1990.

Iola was very involved with her classes in Kenai and Soldotna. She always made a big deal over holidays and took the kids on as many field trips as she could.

If a student in her class seemed to be interested in a particular occupation or subject, she wouldn't rest until she could organize a field trip that would play into that interest.

"One thing I felt very fortunate about being in elementary school in Soldotna is all the field trips I went on," said Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, who was one of Iola's fourth-grade students.

"We went up to Anchorage on a lot of occasions, to the zoo, we went on a lot of swimming trips, and on a train ride. The best thing for kids from Soldotna was the train was filled up with McDonald's food.

"I remember (Iola) was strict but fair," Bagley said. "I enjoyed her class -- at least I don't remember anything I didn't enjoy about it."

In Iola's last year of teaching, she had a full roster of activities planned. She got her dream class of students -- children who were bright and eager to learn, including her grandson.

The class did several fund-raisers and looked forward to a trip to Anchorage that would include a ride on the train and a visit to the Imaginarium.

However, around Thanksgiving, she had a stroke. Her doctor recommended she take it easy, but said she could go back to work. She did, but her health continued to decline. Two months before school was out, she was diagnosed with lupus. Iola made the difficult decision to retire before the year was finished.

"School was no fun anymore," she said. "I didn't want to be sick and teach, it wasn't fair to the kids. I couldn't put the kids through that."

Iola came through on her promise of the field trip and accompanied the class and their new teacher. But that was her last day in the teaching profession.

Looking back over her career, Iola can think of nothing she would change.

"I don't regret anything I did," she said. "As they say, I would do it all over again and I might do it better.

It is hard to imagine how Iola could have improved on her impressive career, especially considering the honors she has received because of it. She is the recipient of the American Medal of Honor, the Presidential Seal of Honor and a Lifetime Achievement Award for her outstanding contributions to education and her dedication to building a better society.

"Working with kids is very rewarding. Sometimes people don't appreciate you, but when you see a child's face light up the first time they learned to read or could work a problem, I think that's your reward right there."

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