Barnes-Otis still making impact on her students

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, June 17, 2018

More than 20 years after she retired from teaching, Bessie Barnes-Otis is still having an impact on the hundreds of students she taught during more than three decades as a teacher in Vicksburg.

When she is out shopping or attends a class reunion, it is the moments when students come up to her and recount a tidbit of advice or a moment in class that changed their lives, that Otis said she realizes the impact she had and continues to have.

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“I never thought of myself as being outstanding. I just felt like I got along with the students and I got along with the faculty, but I never felt like I was an outstanding person,” Otis said. “Every time I run into a student, they remember and say, ‘I remember you did this in class. I remember you said this in class and it stays with me to today,’ that is important. I don’t remember saying some of the things, but they will come back at class reunions and tell me things that I said and things that I did, that I must have made an impression.”

Otis’s taught in Vicksburg from 1961 until her retirement in 1996, first at Rosa A. Temple High School and then at Vicksburg High after the school district integrated. She was originally hired as a French teacher at Temple and spent her career teaching French and English and eventually became the chair of the foreign language department at Vicksburg High.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Otis said of teaching at Temple. “It was innovative for the time, because if you look at the Vicksburg community today you will see that a lot of the professionals and the people we consider to be successful actually came from that school. We had good teachers, polite students and parent support.”

After her retirement, Otis spent many years tutoring both at schools throughout Vicksburg and through the city’s program. She also helped to mentor new teachers.

For her years of dedication to students in Vicksburg, Otis was recognized Saturday with the annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes Lifetime Achievement Award.   

“It means a lot. Some students from the past recognized something that I touched them in some kind of way that they wanted to recognize me now,” Otis said of receiving the award. “That is the great reward for teaching. Teaching wasn’t about the money. We weren’t making that much. It was about contact and concern. If they can come back in later years and invite you to class reunions and give you awards you must have done something right. I feel I must have done something right.”

This is the sixth year the award has been presented. Last year, the winners were Jim and Ann Stirgus, both longtime educators in Vicksburg.

“It is selected to honor people that have given their lifetime of working with children and making an impact in their cities. They (the previous winners) all made life-altering changes in kids’ lives and they continue doing that positive thing,” Alonzo Stevens, the local FCA representative, said. “We came up in a time when people thought we weren’t equipped, but these teachers equipped us with pride and knowledge, Christian growth, they just nurtured a well-rounded student.”

Stevens, who was a student of Otis’ at Temple, said when they were deciding upon this year’s recipient she was an easy choice.

“She is a great lady, a fantastic educator, a Christian lady who sings in her choir and it is her time,” Stevens said. “There is a list we go through of people in the community and hands down it was Mrs. Otis. Matter of fact, I have some people in the community saying, ‘why so long?’ I am just glad that she can enjoy it.”

Otis was honored Saturday during a ceremony at Jackson Street M.B. Church.