In memory of ‘Butterfly

Published 10:23 pm Monday, July 2, 2018

I’ll never forget my first day as Pam Brewer’s student. For some reason, I signed up to take Latin my sophomore year of high school, so in early August of 2006, I found myself in the classroom at the end of the hallway overlooking the football field.

I was one of the youngest students in my class, I’d never even considered learning a new language, and I was terrified. The rest of the day is a blur, but I remember Mrs. Brewer coming in, calmly turning on her old-fashioned projector, and saying, “Okay. Let’s start with verb conjugations.” I didn’t even know what conjugating was, but her calm demeanor and the level of comfort she obviously had in her classroom and with the language immediately eased my fears. Within 15 seconds of meeting her, she taught me the first of many valuable lessons: always be ready to learn, even if it’s scary.

I spent the next three years drifting in and out of Mama Brew’s classroom like it was a home base for my entire high school career, not unlike many other students who knew her. Anytime I needed somewhere to go, or someone to talk to, or advice about a paper I was writing, or book suggestions, or a chariot race via wheelie chair down the hallway, Mama Brew’s door was open. I specifically remember the wheelie chair race tournament of Spirit Week 2008. I don’t know that a lot of learning happened at BHS that week, but I do know that a lot of memories were made.

“Brewer classes” were hard. There’s no way around that fact. Whether she taught you Latin, AP English, AP Lit, or some other class she took on, you could always rest assured that you would work your butt off for whatever grade you earned. I distinctly remember the research paper she assigned to our AP Lit class our senior year: 25 pages, 25 sources, only 10 sources could be web-based, and our topic was “a classical author and a theme in their works.”

My first reaction was, “Seriously, Brewer?! 25 pages?!”

I think that’s the most time any of us spent in the library in our entire high school careers. By the time I turned in my paper, I felt like a contestant on “Lost.” My brain was mush and I had written the last half of the assignment in a deep mental fog. I was sure that level of academic torture was completely unnecessary and that I’d never benefit from it. When I got to college and my first paper in Spanish Lit 401 was assigned, and I had to write an incredibly difficult essay in another language, I was intensely grateful for the literary boot camp Mrs. Brewer had put me through in high school. Thus surfaced yet another Brewer lesson: the benefits of hard work may not be seen immediately, but they still exist.

Mrs. Brewer’s background led her to be more forward thinking and open minded than most, and she made sure to instill some of that particular trait in every student she could. We were assigned a project in one of her classes that required us to summarize each book of the Bible, including the Apocrypha. I, like many of my classmates, was raised Southern Baptist, and had never even heard of the Apocrypha until then. Some of the stories seemed totally outlandish. I told Mrs. Brewer I could see why they weren’t in the standard Bibles. Who could believe such fantastic stories?! I hardly got the words out of my mouth before I was swiftly (though kindly) taught another valuable lesson: what’s normal to you may be fantastical or strange to those of other cultures. This particular lesson has sent ripples throughout many facets of my own life, and I’m sure plenty of her other students could say the same. 

One classroom element that was specific to Mrs. Brewer was her disciplinary spray bottle. When you have a room full of mischievous students, keeping the focus on learning can be a challenge. True to form, Mama Brew came up with a creative solution for us sometime around AP English. She started using her spray bottle, originally kept strictly for projector screen washing, to keep a select few of us subdued enough to be effectively taught. If one of us got too rowdy, swoosh, we’d get sprayed in the back of the head. It was similar to disciplining unruly cats, and I’m 100 percent sure that’s where she got the inspiration for it. This was a surprisingly effective method of classroom management, until the select few offenders stole the water bottle and started spraying her back. Somehow I don’t think “water bottle wars” was a topic in the syllabus for AP English, but we all became quite proficient at it.

Anyone who knew Pam Brewer knew she was a hippie. An actual, real life, flower power hippie. The entire time she was my teacher, everyone bugged her relentlessly for hippie stories and for her to tell us her hippie name. We would try to guess what it might be, saying random “hippie words” to see if she’d react to them with any familiarity, but she would never even give us a hint. She’d occasionally tell us tidbits about Woodstock and long hair and flowy skirts, but we couldn’t ever really tell how much of it was true and how much of it was just her messing with our heads. Finally, our senior year, she told someone her real hippie name. It circulated quickly, and I can imagine she had a steady flow of students coming to her classroom to confirm the news. I refused to believe it until I heard it from the source, and when I did, I knew it had to be true. What other name would suit such a person? Our beloved Mama Brew was, in fact, Butterfly. Today, as I reflect on the impact she had on thousands of students, and remember her floaty, calming, magnetic personality, I can think of no better name for such an incredible lady.

The best teachers are those that teach academia as well as life lessons, and Pam Brewer was the epitome of that. From Latin, to literature, to the Apocrypha, she never failed to make learning fun and exciting (even “Grapes of Wrath,” sometimes). She made sure her classroom was a place for curiosity, comfort and friendship. She inspired so many of us to follow career paths that would have otherwise been skipped over for lack of confidence or comprehension. She provided guidance and a haven for those in need. She was a role model, a confidant and a friend. She will forever float through our memories, and the ripple of her influence will continue for many years to come. Thank you for the laughs and lessons, Mama Brew. We’ll see you later.

Rebecca Stroud is a Brookhaven High School graduate.