The girl came to the big brick school in Lincoln from a little town in Kansas. Her mother had died and her father had remarried, and she felt lost.
When she walked into the sixth-grade classroom on the top floor of Prescott Elementary School that day in 1952, she found Dorcas Cavett, a woman with dark hair and blue eyes and shipshape posture.
She'd been a lady Marine in the war, the teacher told the students on the first day of class.
The children looked at her with big eyes.
No one dared mess with Mrs. Cavett.
But she had a good heart and she knew how the new girl felt. She'd married a man with a little boy. The man's first wife — the little boy's mother — had died, too.
That teacher made the girl feel safe and not so different anymore.
And even though she was strict, she made learning so fun that the new girl and all the children loved her.
One day she told the students to bring suitcases to school.
They walked around the block with their suitcases, flying on an imaginary airplane to Brazil one week and on to Argentina the next.
They cooked strange dishes with strange names and wrote letters home, telling their parents everything they’d learned on their trips.
“I still can’t tell you about the exports of Brazil,” says Charlene McCoy, who was that little girl from Kansas. “But Dorcas taught me that you can take anything and make it interesting if you want to.”
A few years after Charlene left Prescott, Mrs. Cavett was fired.
The school had a rule.
“Teachers should have a black book on the playground and write down the names of the children who were naughty. Dorcas didn’t believe in that.
“And if she didn’t think something was right she wouldn’t do it.”
A school named Cavett
The woman in apartment 221 sleeps most nights in the maroon recliner in her study. One night she fell asleep here quite by accident and discovered she slept better in the chair than she did in her own bed down the hall.
Her legs didn’t move in the chair and wake her up, she explains.
It’s been 20 years since she retired from teaching and 12 years since the city built a school on the south edge of town — Cavett Elementary, named in honor of Dorcas and Al Cavett.
It’s been 13 years since Al died of cancer and three years since Dorcas, now 90, gave up her cats and her house on High Street to live here, at the assisted living home at 72nd and Van Dorn streets.
She takes her meals in her room.
She moves from living room to the study in her wheelchair, propelling forward with her feet.
On a TV tray she keeps five tubes of lipstick and two combs and a blue bottle of lotion.
On her desk are a laptop and three books: “It’s Never Too Late to Love a Computer,” “How We Live” and “How We Die.”
Her stepson Dick gave her the laptop and the books, she says.
“We exchange books because we’re not much interested in anything else much.”
This, of course, is not strictly true.
Dorcas is interested in politics and education and people.
She is interested in the world and the mind and animals and football — all things great and small that matter.
When she was a schoolgirl, a favorite English teacher wrote a note on one of her papers:
“I wonder whether you appreciate your own great good fortune in being able to enjoy life as you do.”
Great good fortune
The first time a reporter calls for an interview, Dorcas politely refuses.
That sounds like her friend, says Sue Kirby.
Sue is another of Mrs. Cavett’s former pupils. They met in 1978. Sue was in Teachers College, a 36-year-old with a husband and family, embarking on a new career.
One day she walked into the education professor’s office to talk over an exam she had taken.
What are the things you dream about, Dorcas asked.
The student told her she dreamed of putting on a workshop for other teachers and showing them the things she’d learned as a mother and a Cub Scout leader for her own little boy.
Well, let’s make it happen, the teacher said.
“She was such a dreamer, and when I did my student teaching she put her name with mine and we did a workshop together. We made all kinds of games to enhance reading and math.”
Dorcas builds confidence in people, says Sue, a teacher at Clinton Elementary School.
Sue used to think she did it just for her. Then she attended a ceremony where Dorcas received an award for outstanding contributions in the field of math.
In a room filled with hundreds of people, the organizer asked everyone to stand who had Mrs. Cavett as a teacher or mentor.
More than half of them rose.
“I was shocked. There are legions out there, but when you are with her, she makes you feel like the most important person in the world.”
After Prescott School, Mrs. Cavett taught at Bancroft School on the University of Nebraska campus. After that, she taught thousands of children math from a television studio at Nebraska Educational Television, and after that she taught university students how to teach.
Sue comes to visit Dorcas now. She writes letters for her, since a stroke took away her ability to write.
“She does not lack for visitors. She does not lack for mail.
“I’ve picked up her mail before, and sometimes I have to take a bag with me to carry it up.”
A lively bunch
The year Al retired from teaching, he seemed sad on his birthday.
For heaven’s sake, his wife said. What is it you really want?
What kind of boat?
Where would you like to go boating?
The Missouri River.
They bought a cruiser and launched on the Missouri River, says Dorcas. They cruised all over the rivers and lakes of Nebraska and Kansas.
“Boating people are a lively bunch,” she says.
“That was probably the single most fun we ever had.”
Her body bends forward in her wheelchair and her blue eyes sparkle like Fourth of July fireworks.
She was the oldest of six.
Her father was a teacher and a schoolbook salesman and a school superintendent.
They lived in Chadron before coming to Lincoln. They moved a lot —“My poor mother” — because landlords were always renting houses out from under them.
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Dorcas went to college. From the minute she sat down in her first class, she knew she wanted to teach.
And so she did. She taught in Snyder, Nebraska, for $650 a year. She taught in Des Moines — 65 students in one classroom.
When World War II came along, she wanted to help. She rushed down to the Navy recruiting office on her bicycle every day after work. She wanted to be a WAVE, but she never got there before they closed.
That’s how she ended up being the first female Marine.
The recruiter saw her stomping down the steps of the closed office.
Hey, he said, we’re signing up the first women Marines tomorrow.
She marched in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral procession in her dark green Marine uniform.
She eventually came back to Lincoln to teach. Al Cavett and his wife, Era, and their son, Dick, lived next door to her parents on 23rd Street.
The families got along well.
They talked about teaching and they played with the Cavetts’ friendly dog and were entertained by Dick, who grew up to become a famous talk show host.
One day Era came home with a terrible headache, and they found cancer in her brain.
Al always said he wouldn’t walk across the street to find a new wife, but he would walk next door.
“I feel Dick Cavett was so fortunate that when his mother died, next door was a woman who had been friends with his mom who kept him going in the right ways,” says Ron Hull, a long-time friend of the family.
“She was an intellectual. She came in and held up that half of the sky in that household at a very crucial time.”
An authentic teacher
The story in the newspaper in 1961 noted that Dorcas Cavett “attracted national attention when she had her students follow the stock market to learn fractions and gain an understanding of business methods.”
In 1964 another story said the teacher was “the TV star who makes arithmetic interesting.”
A 1975 story said she marched to the State Capitol in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. “I think it’s time we got on with it,” the story quoted the teacher saying.
In a letter to the editor in 1984, Dorcas Crawford Cavett wrote: “To become an authentic teacher, one must have intelligence, character, ability, imagination and energy.”
In the 1990s Sue Kirby wrote a letter to the school board nominating Dorcas and Al Cavett as educators worthy of having a school named in their honor.
She doesn’t remember what she wrote.
But she remembers showing it to her old teacher, who paid it that highest compliment.
She looked over the words of praise.
“It’s a well-written letter,” she told her former student.
Dorcas is one of the smartest people in Lincoln, says Ron Hull.
She is honest and frank and forthright. She has imagination and energy and intelligence and character.
“And her mind is as agile and as steel blue as it ever was.”
The High Street gang
Mark and Vicki Plano Clark were new to the neighborhood.
They looked out their window on High Street and watched an older woman pushing a walker, balancing a box of cinnamon rolls and coming towards their house.
Oh, my goodness, they thought. Should they come out to help?
“It’s a good thing I didn’t,” says Mark, a physics professor at Doane College.
Dorcas didn’t need any help.
“She was amazing. She still is.”
Dorcas held the neighborhood together, he says.
When the great October ice storm of 1997 came, everyone gathered in her living room in front of the fireplace.
She hosted New Year’s Eve parties.
And on Halloween all the children brought gifts for her dog, Goblin.
She told stories of her life. Working on a dude ranch, nursing a sick circus elephant back to health, joining the Marines.
She told stories of her students, the time they snuck a sheep dog into the classroom over the protests of the principal, the little boy who thought he didn’t have to listen because his dad was the superintendent.
“My dad was a superintendent, too,” Mrs. Cavett told him. “So sit down.”
On late summer nights, the windows open, they would hear her soft whistle, calling her two cats to bed, and know all was well.
Mark and Vicki and other couples from the neighborhood still gather with their old friend in apartment 221 for dinner and conversation.
They eat and talk politics and current events and never tire of Dorcas and her stories.
“If I did 10 percent of what she did in my life,” says Mark, “I’d say I had a good life.”
Dorcas and the ducks
Fifty years ago, when Dorcas taught at Bancroft School and it was time to study Canada, she wrote a number on the blackboard: 3,849,670 square miles.
This did not impress her students.
Does anyone know the difference between a square mile and a linear mile, she asked.
No one did.
So she loaded the girls and boys on a school bus and took them to the countryside. They got out at 72nd and Van Dorn streets.
They walked a mile south.
And a mile east.
And a mile north.
And a mile west — back to where they started.
The children were pooped. Now they could see how big just one square mile was – and they could start to imagine 3,849,670.
That day, when they arrived back where they began at 72nd and Van Dorn streets, back at the place where their teacher would one day live on the second floor in a 765 square-foot apartment, with her books and her memories, they saw a family of ducks.
They laughed and chased the ducks, trying to catch them.
In 2004, the first spring Dorcas lived in her new apartment, a family of ducks came to stay in the courtyard.
She heard there was talk in the administrative office of getting rid of the ducks and so she started a petition drive to let them stay.
“I raised hell. I told them, ‘Those ducks were here long before you were.’”
The ducks stayed.
Soon they will return once more, and everyone looks forward to their arrival.
“The whole bunch is won over,” says Dorcas, blue eyes gleaming.
“We feed them until they fly away.”
Reach Cindy Lange-Kubick at 473-7218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.