They were quiet at first. About 660 pupils dressed in purple and white, their guest’s favorite colors, waited without a peep for her to walk through the doors.
It was Louise Tarver Jackson’s 90th birthday, and she was choosing to spend it at the school where she taught for almost three decades.
And although it was her day, she came bearing gifts: a $1,000 check for startup money for a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics lab; the promise to pay for the remainder of the lab to its completion; $100 college scholarships for 18 of the highest achieving and hardest working students; a commitment, along with DSM Chemicals, to pay for the end of year trip to Carowinds amusement park for those who passed all five subjects of the Criterion Reference Competency Tests; and a cake and ice cream party for the school.
The pupils thanked her in cheers, applause and a 600-pupil strong happy birthday serenade as she arrived.
“I’m speechless,” Principal Tonethia Beasley said of the gifts. “I always say with a closed fist you can’t receive blessings. So evidently not only do we have an open hand, we must have open arms here at Hornsby because we’ve truly been blessed today.”
Jackson was born in Blythe but grew up in Augusta and graduated from Paine College in 1943. She began teaching that year and worked on her master’s degree in elementary education from Wayne State University in the summers.
She spent 45 years teaching in Augusta and the past 28 at Hornsby, where she retired in 1988. Jackson is Paine’s largest single donor; she gave $350,000, nearly all her life’s savings, to the school. About $200,000 funded the construction of a female honors dorm, Jackson Hall, that opened in 2010 and the rest was to fund an annual, endowed $15,000 scholarship for a needy Paine student.
Although Jackson acknowledged the crowd, she did not speak. Her daughter Anita, however, said she hopes through partnerships with companies such as Lenovo, Intel, Cisco and NASA, Hornsby can make its STEM lab a national model for STEM education. The lab will feature computers, microscopes and other equipment and should be built by September.
Anita said it was a dream for her mother to be able to help Hornsby, which was like her second home. On Friday, Jackson watched the students thank her with a birthday cake, music played by the band, balloons and a happy birthday message painted on the wall.
“It’s really about giving back, which is what my mother’s life has been about,” said Anita, an ear, nose and throat surgeon in Raleigh, N.C. “The fact she’s lived to 90 years old is a gift to all of us. So she’s really an inspiration to other people.”
Shirley Godbee, the school’s social worker, was a pupil of Jackson’s when she attended Hornsby in third grade. She remembers her as a “very good, caring teacher,” who always had ethical discussions and moral lessons along with rigorous academics.
As sixth-grade social studies teacher Audra Roper watched her pupils in the bleachers listen to Jackson’s daughter announce the gifts, she said she saw opportunities like never before.
The low-income school in east Augusta has an array of challenges ahead. It was labeled as a Priority School in 2012, the most severe designation for underachieving schools under Georgia’s new accountability system, based on CRCT scores from 2010-11. Beasley, who took over as principal in 2011-12, is leading a reform where the school has three years to improve and shake the status.
With stigmas and financial barriers on its back, Roper said kindness like Jackson’s gives motivation the school desperately needs.
“It opens a whole world of possibilities for them, and it knocks the obstacles out of the way,” Roper said. “It inspires them to know someone cares enough to give. This is a school where the teachers are passionate about their students. The students aren’t judged. The students feel like we support them, and they want to please the teachers. There are negative labels that are put on the school, and we’re in the process of breaking those chains. … With this gift, their future just opened up for them on a platter.”