COLUMBIA – In 1965, Maxine Nelson and two other students at Columbia's all-black Douglass High School enrolled in a predominately white school a year before integration would become mandatory. The fifth-grade teacher said there were no spots available in her class, Nelson recalled, and placed her in the special education class.
In her new surroundings, Nelson struggled to adjust. Most of her friends were still at Douglass. Other students ostracized her, she said, and sometimes teachers would only call on her when they thought she didn’t know the answer.
“When I used to go to school, I would walk with my eyes closed, hoping a truck would hit me or something,” Nelson said. “Then I wouldn’t have to go in there and be treated like that.”
Soon after being placed in the special education class, Nelson’s mother, a well-known cook, was hired to cater a private dinner party at the home of the fifth-grade teacher who didn’t have any open spots in her classroom for Nelson.
“My mom took me to help cater that night, but we didn’t know we were going to her house," Nelson said. "The teacher watched me work with my mother and was amazed by the directions I could follow and what I could do.”
The next day, Nelson was invited into the regular classroom. She never forgot her special education classmates, though.
“I’d always had a special understanding for children that didn’t seem to catch on quickly. I felt they could catch on. They just needed new techniques and you have to work with them to do that,” Nelson said.
Ever since, Nelson has devoted herself to helping special education students. She has taught for 35 years, the last 29 with Columbia Public School District. She was honored Jan. 19 at St. Luke United Methodist Church with a Martin Luther King Award for community contributions, including her work with special education students.
“Maxine works well with young people and their parents,” said Bill Thompson, co-director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Association, which organized the award ceremony. “She goes beyond the call of duty.”
The award, Nelson said, "means I’m really reaching the community as well as my students. My experience has been very worthwhile. This award is everything I hope I stand for.”
For the past 19 years, Nelson, 55, has taught special education at West Junior High School. Soon after joining the staff, Nelson, inspired by Dr. King, started a diversity group called Pamodzi, which means together. The group, which remains active, was formed for students Nelson felt weren’t invested in the school for various reasons.
The members of Pamodzi collect food for the Food Pantry at Nelson’s church, Russell Chapel C.M.E. Church. Pamodzi offers tutoring, travels to become aware of other campus activities and focuses on history by performing poems and dramatic interpretations around and outside of Columbia. The group also does a Black History assembly each February.
“I encourage all children to join Pamodzi as a way of teaching togetherness,” Nelson said. “We usually are represented by at least five different ethnic groups.”
“I’m really excited and happy that she won the MLK Award,” said Karen Walker-McClure, reverend of Russell Chapel C.M.E. Church. “Her joy is in helping people and seeing how they grow.”
Nelson describes her students as “at risk,” which can range from anger management issues to academic struggles. She understands the baggage most of her students bring to class, a common problem being the absence of an immediate male role model, and also realizes her students’ problems are compounded because junior high is a time of many changes.
“I understand the baggage they bring, but I don’t allow them to use it as an excuse,” Nelson said. “If a student comes without a pencil, I’m not going to yell at him, but he’s not going to be excused from doing his work.”
Although Nelson does not let students make any excuses for themselves, she does realize that “age is just a number” and that anyone may act seemingly inappropriate for their age if they’ve never been taught right from wrong.
“I set the expectations higher than these students have ever experienced. Believe it or not, the students love that challenge,” Nelson said. “I don’t set any barriers.”
Sandra Logan, principal at West Junior High School, said the goal of the special education program is to meet individual student's learning needs to help them be successful and increase their achievement level.
"Maxine maintains very high standards for all her students; consequently, they rise to those expectations," Logan said.
Along with learning the curriculum, Nelson wants her students to be able to communicate effectively inside and outside the classroom. To achieve this goal, Nelson has her students discuss social skills as a group. For example, if someone makes an obscene comment, the class dissects why it was obscene and what could be said in its place.
“I want to push these children as much as possible,” Nelson said. “I want to get them out of their comfort zone and help them move on from this class.”
Nelson does not take it easy on her students. As soon as her students enter her trailer at West Junior High, Nelson’s personality transforms from affable to assertive and determined.
“She’s got an unconditional love for her students, but she’s also firm,” Walker-McClure said. “Her firmness exhibits her love.”
Above all, Nelson wants every child to be celebrated and feel appreciated – but not just by her. To help her students appreciate themselves, she assigns activities like having her students write a letter from the perspective of President Barack Obama to themselves. The exercise forces her students to identify their positive traits.
“Maxine is very committed to young people,” Walker-McClure said. “Her students love and respect her.”
“Maxine treats all of her students like her own children,” Thompson said.
Nelson has raised four foster children, all grown, who still stay in touch. Her only biological child, Al'Michael, is a singer in the R&B group called Varcity, which performed at the 2006 World Series. Her husband, Michael Nelson, is a carpenter.
Nelson's dedication to her family is matched by her dedication to her profession. She earned the honor of 2008 Outstanding Middle/Junior High Educator of the Year for the Columbia School District. Logan described Nelson as a "magical teacher" inside and outside the classroom.
"Maxine uses whatever is in her bag of tricks to make learning come alive for all her students," Logan said. "She has never given up on a child."
Nelson has pushed retirement back in response to pleading from faculty members, parents and students. But next year, she said, will probably be her last in the classroom. That would give her more time to enjoy her other passions of singing, reading, learning and family activities as well as continue her dramatic re-enactments of former Underground Railroad leader, Harriet Tubman. Nelson directs the choir and is the minister of singing at Russell Chapel C.M.E. Church.
Her advice to special education teachers is to appreciate and celebrate every child.
“Every day is a new day," Nelson said. "You just have to stick with them.”