by Marcus Harden
(Black History Today is published in collaboration with Rise Up for Students.)
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’”
— Toni Morrison
It’s been said that “greatness” is not some esoteric quality that happens to and amongst the chosen, but that it comes from hard work, consistency and unwavering courage. If you called the attendance roll in a “Masters Class” on greatness in the teaching profession, it wouldn’t take long to call the name of Doris Baptist Hickman — or as most call her, Mrs. Hickman.
Mrs. Hickman was born in the great state of Texas to wonderful parents, her dedication to learning and hard work finding its origins there. In 1955, she met and married George Hickman, a former Tuskegee Airman who was volunteering at a local library with her mother. They would marry and in that same year move to Seattle, where he would work for Boeing and she would become a teacher.
I first encountered Mrs. Hickman in the spring of 2002, when I was a young case manager at Madrona K-8 trying to find my way in this educational field, co-facilitating a group of young people around peer relationships and adolescents. I’d heard of Mrs. Hickman because she’d become an institution within the school, parents demanding in first grade that no matter what happened, in fifth grade they wanted their child to be in Mrs. Hickman’s class, because she had been their own teacher!
I noticed Mrs. Hickman because she reminded me of many of my favorite Black women — classy, yet firm, and commanding a level of respect as if her smaller frame filled whole hallways. Mrs. Hickman stood out to me (and taught me hidden lessons) for three reasons:
(1) Her class was the only class in the school (and, honestly, any school I can recall) whose students typically walked the hallway in unison by themselves, silent, with their teacher at best 50 feet behind if around at all. Her class knew her expectations and held that standard.
(2) She was the only person who called me “Mr. Harden,” which would confuse the students — because I’d convinced most that my first and last name were both Marcus! Hence, Mr. Marcus. When I asked her why she did this, as she often would with a sly smile that oozed wisdom, she said it was because I deserved to be respected. While I didn’t see being called by my first name as disrespectful, I understood where she was coming from and felt that deeply. I’ve never forgotten that.
(3) Her classes, without fail, performed at high levels academically and rarely had behavioral issues. Every class had to memorize two famous poems: “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, and “If,” by Rudyard Kipling. And by memorizing I mean, to be clear, that any kid in the class could recite both from memory. I can still hear the sound of her young men standing and reciting and practicing “If” in the hallways as kindergartners walked out of art class, looking up to the unknown example the “big kids” were setting, with Mrs. Hickman teaching a lesson within eyesight inside the classroom.
Mrs. Hickman has literally taught generations of the Madrona/CD community. The calm in the middle of the educational storm, Mrs. Hickman was a constant and her educational greatness was consistent. As a then-young educator, I took those qualities for granted but aimed to put them into my toolkit. I came to appreciate those quieter conversations in the copy room or the hallway, where she’d ask me a question that was, upon reflecting, a lesson in inquiry to help me find a better answer in service of our students and community.
One of the more hidden aspects of Mrs. Hickman is her wry sense of humor — many interactions met with a sly wink or smile, yet she never broke character. Mrs. Hickman, beyond her service at Madrona K-8, is a proud mother of four, a grandmother and great grandmother, an active member of the Seattle Alliance of Black School Educators, and a distinguished member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
Mrs. Hickman always had the answers, although two questions she refused to answer: how old she was and when she would retire. As of this writing, I still don’t know the answer to the former (I’m not sure “timeless” is a real answer). The answer to the latter I felt fortunate to stumble upon one August day before school began. Mrs. Hickman was in the main office making a copy, just the two of us, and I asked if she was ready for another school year. She smiled that smile of hers and told me simply that she was retiring. She didn’t want any fanfare or any fuss. She was just going to ride off into the sunset.
Just like that, the cornerstone of the institution had walked away. We later named the Madrona Community Award in her honor, yet it never quite felt like enough for a woman who has dedicated her life to imparting knowledge into others. While the love of her life, George, has rightfully been recognized as a national treasure, Mrs. Hickman shares the same lofty status. And her work continues to bear fruit, as the many lives she changed continue to bloom and brighten the world.
“It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Like many Black women, Mrs. Hickman is the wind beneath wings, the backbone that bends but never breaks, that greets the world with style, grace and a smile — while holding the weight of the world on her shoulders. She has done more than educate. She has transformed lives, and for that reason and so many more, Doris Baptist Hickman is and forever will be Black History Today!
Marcus Harden is the creator of Black History Today, an annual series honoring Black History Month that pays tribute to the living legacy of Black history in our community and beyond. He is a seasoned educator, with experience as a teacher, counselor, dean, administrator, and program and policy manager. Marcus focuses his work on creating better culture and climate for students, families, and staff. He believes deeply in restorative justice practices and in mindset and resiliency work that leads to excellent and equitable educational outcomes for all students.
Featured illustration by Devin Chicras for the Emerald.
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