FARMINGTON – When Melba Drake traveled to Farmington Normal School for the first time from her home near Portland, she took the narrow-gauge railroad. And when she stepped off the train that day more than 80 years ago, she remembers seeing some of the men and women who would become her favorite teachers lining the platform as she disembarked.
“There was Miss Abbott, with her snow-white hair and big brown eyes. I was never sure what she was thinking,” Drake said. Now Drake is white-haired herself. And at 102, she is the oldest living Farmington alum.
Melba Drake spent Friday, the day before her 102nd birthday, going back to college. It was the birthday present she asked for. Nieces and grandnieces brought her to Merrill Hall, where UMF President Theo Kalikow greeted her with a yellow rose and a proclamation saying that, “At 102, you can do whatever you want!”
When she remembers years past, Drake, a graduate of the class of 1926, still displays the same mischievous smile she flashed in her yearbook photo.
“Give the world the best you have, and the best will come back to you,” she said once, and repeated it. W.G. Mallett, an early administrator at the school, used to read off a new maxim or saying every morning, she said, and the students would have to write it down and memorize it. Years later, she still remembers.
Aided by a walker, she toured the part of the campus Friday, in particular Merrill Hall. She didn’t recognize the lower level of the hall, but as soon as she stepped into Nordica Auditorium, the memories began flowing.
Drake remembered sitting in the auditorium. Instead of paying attention, she said, “We would look at the women teachers and the men teachers, and try to match them up.”
“We didn’t study as hard as we could have,” she said. “We’d never been away from home before. Am I talking too long?”
“No,” Kalikow laughed. “Remember? When you’re 102, you can do whatever you want!”
Like almost everyone who has ever been in school, she had a “terrible test” story to tell, as well. Mr. Preble taught botany and environmental subjects. In one class, he taught his students the different species of trees in Maine by taking them on walks in a nearby forest and letting them get up close to touch the trees.
But the test, Drake said, took place inside. Preble sat at his desk, and next to him was “a big pile of wood” – like you have for a fire, cut and split – she explained. “He gave you a piece of the wood,” and the students had to tell him what species of tree it came from. Chopped and split, and looking nothing like the trees in the forest. “I couldn’t figure out what it was,” Drake said. She doesn’t remember what her grade was, but says she’s sure it wasn’t good.
Like many Farmington grads, Drake was committed to teaching. In some ways – perhaps many – she was ahead of her time as an educator.
She wanted to teach first grade because she thought 5- and 6-year-olds were capable of learning more than most people thought they could at such a young age. “I chose these beginning children” to give them “the right start – a good foundation,” she said.
You can teach children more than you think, just by enriching your program, she said. “I like that word – enriching,” she laughed. One day she had an idea – to tell the children a story, and then stop and ask them to continue it. Only they didn’t quite cooperate, and kept killing off the hero. “Maybe it was a little early” to try to teach them that, she said.
Drake said she was nervous when, after graduating, she was sent to South Waterford to begin her teaching. The Farmington girls had heard some of the older boys in the country schools would be bigger than their 22-year-old teachers.
And one day soon after school started, one of her students – perhaps testing the waters – came up to tell her the class “put a tack on the former teacher’s” seat. “How would you feel if we did that to you?” he asked.
“I don’t know how I thought of it,” Drake said, and paused, smiling, “but I said to him, `Why don’t you try it?'” And that was the end of that, she added.