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Teacher Retires After Half Century Working With Native American Students

Chickasaw teacher Merry Monroe has spent the last 47 years helping both Native American students and non-Native students succeed.
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The emotionally exhaustive task of packing 47 years of professional life in boxes began mid-May.

This month, Byng, Oklahoma school bells silent for months—rang out. For the first time in 52 years, Merry Monroe’s sunny disposition and warm, welcoming smile was absent.

The Chickasaw woman attended school here, receiving her diploma in 1969.

By ’72, Merry Monroe had worked as a teacher’s aide at Byng schools for two years and was assigned additional duties of helping Native American students succeed.

Working with other Native American students was nothing extraordinary for Mrs. Monroe. Indeed, she had been assisting Byng school officials while enrolled as a student.


Defining Force

Marvin Stokes was superintendent of Byng schools. He worked tirelessly to call attention to programs and services available to Native American students. He also was a positive and powerful force in Mrs. Monroe’s life, education and career.

“When I started at Byng in the ninth grade, all the Indian kids knew all the other Indian kids,” Mrs. Monroe recalled. “When new students arrived, we would welcome them and help them from one class to the other. That was just the way it was in 1965.”

Mr. Stokes elicited the help of Mrs. Monroe’s father, Howard Baker, minister of Ada First Indian Baptist Church and a fluent Chickasaw speaker. As late as the 1960s, many Indian families still spoke Chickasaw in the home, Mrs. Monroe said.

She would accompany her father to Indian homes to explain what educational opportunities and services were available through the Johnson-O’Malley Act (JOM) passed in 1934 to help Native American students. The act authorized states to subsidize education, medical, and other services to Native students.

“Those visits also served as an introduction to other native people and students,” Mrs. Monroe said. “I loved making those trips with Daddy.”

It was because of those introductions that Mr. Stokes knew Mrs. Monroe would be the right person to work with the Native American population at Byng schools, especially with the early childhood students. In 1970, Mrs. Monroe accepted a position working with the young students and her career in Indian education began.

She was asked to serve as Byng’s JOM representative, an assignment she accepted. She ultimately became Indian Education Coordinator.

In a special school assembly this spring, Mrs. Monroe’s retirement was noted with accolades and honors. She was presented an eagle feather and lush Indian motif blanket for 47 years of service to Native Americans through JOM and Indian education leadership.

Learning, Growing

Mrs. Monroe may have started out as a teacher’s aide—all the while dreaming of becoming a nurse—but additional responsibilities arrived frequently.

One of these added responsibilities was serving each site in the Byng school system, including the Byng main campus, Homer and Francis. Needs of the students convinced her she was “right where she should be.” She worked with pre-K through 12th grade. While Mrs. Monroe worked primarily with Native Americans, she could not, and did not, turn any student away.

In 1998, she found herself permanently assigned to Byng High School working with at-risk students, both Indian and non-Indian, in addition to her JOM tasks.

“There were kids in need of help and encouragement and I couldn’t leave them. I think that’s why I’ve stayed so long,” she said.

When federal mandates for “No Child Left Behind” swept through the U.S. Congress in 2002, Mrs. Monroe stared into the abyss of a possible career-ending mandate. The legislation required every person working with students either possess a teaching certificate; have 50 hours of college credit, or pass a certification test to remain employed.

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“I was scared,” she said. “I chose to complete the college hours and hit it head on.”

Mrs. Monroe enrolled in nine hours at East Central University in Native American history, sign language and speech.

Three semesters later, a life-altering college credit course presented itself to Mrs. Monroe.

It helped her become a conversational Chickasaw language speaker. Her father was a fluent speaker. So was her grandmother, Cindy Harjo Bevenue, only in the Muscogee Creek language. Mrs. Monroe did inquire about the languages that surrounded her as a child, but only a few native words were used in the home.

Mrs. Monroe considered the course a path to become closer to her heritage, tradition and culture. She enrolled. One year later, instructor Cedric Sunray and Chickasaw Nation Language Department Director Joshua Hinson asked her to teach the Chickasaw language at Byng High School.

Mrs. Monroe leapt into Chickasaw language courses offered by the Chickasaw Nation. She asked fluent speaker Pauline Walker to mentor her. She was accepted into the Chickasaw Nation’s Master Apprentice program and became immersed in the language at Mrs. Walker’s urging. Mrs. Walker passed away about a year after the two began working together, but Mrs. Monroe’s education did not end there.

She observed Mr. Hinson teaching the Byng language course two years before taking the helm.

“Basically, I was a student, too,” she said.

She graduated in 2011 from ECU with a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies. Today, she is mentored by Chickasaw fluent speaker Geneva Holman, a special relationship that has spanned many years.

Reaping Rewards

She began teaching Chickasaw to Byng students. It went further than merely “Chokma,” “loksi” and “shawi.” The goal was to sow seeds for students to become “conversational” in Chickasaw, not limited to saying hello or identifying a turtle or raccoon.

“One of the best learning tools developed through the tribe is Rosetta Stone and the Chickasaw language,” Mrs. Monroe said. “I am doing it and it is wonderful. As soon as the tribe announced citizens could begin the course, I was on it. You must keep learning and keep active and maintain a level of dedication to learning.”

Excited with Rosetta Stone’s launch and her students using it, Mrs. Monroe almost did not follow through with retirement plans this year.

“I almost went to the superintendent a few times to say I was going to delay my retirement another year,” she said, laughing.

This was coupled with students dropping by her classroom to tell her they would be enrolled in her language class in 2017-18.

“I thought ‘what am I going to do? These students want to take my class and I’m not going to be here.’”

The decision to retire was an internal struggle.

Her husband of 47 years, Leonard Monroe, retired several years ago from Tinker Air Force Base after 28 years of service. The couple has two children, James and Christy. Her involvement with “Native Praise,” a globe-trotting ensemble of Native American women singing hymns of the five tribes, keeps her busy. She has been a member since 1999. “Native Praise” has traveled throughout the United States as well as to the United Kingdom where it shared its unique ministry.

“People have asked me what I’ll do now that I’m retired,” she said. “There are things I’d like to do. I’d like to travel. I will just take life as it comes.”

The Monroes make regular visits throughout Oklahoma for tribal celebrations, including invitations to “Native Praise,” as a part of its Link Ministries.

When asked if years of difficult work was worth it, Mrs. Monroe responds with a hearty “oh, yes!”

“I have no regrets about the time I have spent, particularly with students,” she said. “I have been blessed this last 47 years. A lot of people don’t get to do what they want to do. I’ve done what I wanted to do. I am leaving at a time when I still love what I dedicated my life to and you can’t beat that.”