What I Learned From Mrs. Byrd
March is Women’s History Month, and a person I think of this time of year is my second grade teacher, Harriett Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd. Mrs. Byrd was the first African American woman to serve in both Wyoming’s Senate and Wyoming’s House of Representatives. She was the primary sponsor of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill — to get that passed into law, she had to bring it before the Wyoming Legislature nine times, but she persevered and it eventually passed with the addition of Wyoming Equality Day
to the name. According to “Black America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia,” Mrs. Byrd was also the first fully certified black teacher working in Wyoming. When she first started teaching in Cheyenne, where she taught me, she earned just $4,400 a year. Of course, back when she taught me, I didn’t fully appreciate how many barriers Mrs. Byrd broke. This appreciation for her efforts only came when I was much older. In second grade, she was just my teacher. In terms of her teaching style, Mrs. Byrd never raised her voice, but we always knew what the rules were in her class; she had a standard of behavior that was both high and clear. I understand now how she worked to cultivate good habits and organized minds. Mrs. Byrd also taught me penmanship, complete with the two solid lines and one dotted line in between. I remember how clean and neat her writing was, and I remember doing my best to follow along when she would say, “Pull, loop, and drag.” That part didn’t stick — I have terrible handwriting — but what did stick is the lesson that there’s no excuse for not being engaged. Even as grade schoolers,
under Mrs. Byrd’s guidance, writing letters to the Wyoming Legislature, arguing with all my second grade enthusiasm about how wonderful the buffalo is and how it should be recognized as the state mammal. Mrs. Byrd taught me that civic engagement is for all people, and you learn by participating in the process. She made getting involved fun and concrete. She showed our class exactly what that looks like, whether it’s writing a letter, going to a meeting, or going up to a podium and asking for a microphone so you can voice your opinion. If we could do it as elementary school students, of course we can do it as adults, right? In my home state of Wyoming, we have a strong record for women’s rights. We were the first state to pass a law that allowed women to vote, we had the first female governor in the U.S. (Nellie Tayloe Ross), we had the first female justice of the peace in the U.S. (Esther Hobart Morris), and it was in Wyoming that, in 1870, the first women jurors were empaneled for a trial. Women in Wyoming have been paving the way for women all over the country for more than a century, and I feel lucky to have studied with a role model and inspiration like Mrs. Byrd.
THE 7 HAZARDS TO YOUR ESTATE PLAN
Mrs. Byrd took us to the capitol so we could see how government worked. I still have a picture of myself standing behind former Gov. Ed Herschler on a trip organized by Mrs. Byrd. She got us involved in the legislative process, too. I remember,
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