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On the last day of her 57 year teaching career for Oakland Unified School District, and for perhaps the first time ever, Arvella Hayden is late. Her signature blue Volkswagen has yet to pull into the parking lot. But that’s OK. There’s only one student in the classroom, and the entire class had their virtual kindergarten graduation ceremony over Zoom the day before. Her co-educator of 30 years, Dinah Castle Byrd, is holding things down, supervising the dozen or so students of all grades currently riding tricycles and throwing basketballs out on the yard of Martin Luther King, Jr. & Lafayette Elementary School for the last day of the 2020-21 school year.
It’s hot, and those not playing sit under the shade of a tree to chat and do each other’s hair. Byrd is surprised by Hayden’s tardiness, considering she can’t remember Hayden ever missing a day of school.
“We were in this together; I had her back. She stayed at school ‘til 6 p.m., awake until 3 a.m. on the computer. She was always neat. Never missed a day,” Byrd said of Hayden’s prompt dedication.
At 2 p.m. the district will host a retirement celebration for “Ms. Hayden” on Zoom with people who have come to know Hayden over her nearly six decades of teaching. There are fellow teachers, principals, school board members, parents and even superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, who calls Hayden’s steadfastness a “gift” to the community.
By 1 p.m., faculty are starting to ask if anyone has seen her. The main office buzzes with an air of celebrity. The district’s communications director, John Sasaki, has arrived with a special plaque honoring Hayden’s contributions to the district.
“She’s literally a legend,” he said. “She’s taught three generations” through one of the most tumultuous and transformative periods in history.
Suddenly, a whisper. The blue Volkswagen has been sighted. Hayden is here.
She’s slight, perhaps around five feet tall without her clogs, which, according to Byrd, is her footwear of choice. Her hair is brushed and styled away from her face, and she wears her OUSD pin on a black scarf over a patterned blouse, glasses high on her nose.
Colleagues have said, “I want to be like her one day”; students describe her as smart and nice. Under the late-May sun, she looks out onto the yard of present and past students. Byrd’s own granddaughter, Alliyah Collins, zips past on a scooter. She graduated from Hayden’s class in 2017, and refers to the teacher as a grandmother figure. For Hayden, who does not have children of her own, campus is a second home, one she’s sad to leave.
“I’m emotional,” Hayden said. “I’m a teacher and a mother and a grandmother to them. I remember most of them,” which by now numbers over 1,500 students.
Hayden was born and raised in Oklahoma, the youngest of 12 children. Her father provided enough so that her mother didn’t have to work, and they were able to send Hayden’s oldest sister to college, where she eventually became a teacher. (She was Hayden’s third grade teacher.) This was Hayden’s sign to follow down the same path.
“She was my role model,” she said in a previous statement.
After attending college in Texas, Hayden moved out to Oakland, where another of her sisters had relocated. They live together to this day, and Hayden refers to all five of her nieces and nephews she helped raise as her own children. They would say the same of her.
She began teaching at Arroyo Viejo Child Development Center in 1964, later spending over 30 years at Lafayette Elementary. After some district reshuffling, she’s been at MLK Elementary for four years. Many of her students descend from former students, and the school’s Coach Al says even people who’ve never set foot on campus have only good things to say about Hayden. Principal Roma Groves-Waters calls her presence “historic.”
“It’s been a blessing having her as a historic presence in a group of pioneering Black teachers who came to lead,” Groves-Waters said. A virtual celebration was necessary because a public gathering, the principal said, “would have been 500 people.”
She’s not wrong. Everyone knows Hayden. Families approach her in the grocery store and on the sidewalk. There’s often a waiting list for children hoping to get into her class. According to Groves-Waters, former students from as far as Atlanta, Georgia have organized virtual celebrations for her. A former colleague, Linda Thomas, has come from Antioch to bring Hayden a bouquet. Hayden had been Thomas’ mentor when she began teaching back in the ’70s, a time where she can remember seeing bodies in the street and bullet holes in the windows.
“I never saw the woman mad,” said Thomas. “She never complained.”
A lot has changed since Hayden’s first year in the classroom: the same year as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize, Cassius Clay’s heavyweight win, the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the movie premier of “Mary Poppins.” Since then, she’s taught sight reading through the Vietnam War, spelling through the Clinton administration and, most recently, completed a year of remote teaching on Zoom at 80 years old. She likely would have kept teaching had the pandemic not made her in-person approach impossible.
She may still come in to volunteer, but as the rays of summer vacation beam down on West Oakland, the air is thick with possibility. She is, as one teacher calls out in the Zoom universe, “liberated.” But before she logs off, there is one last legacy to impart: From now on, the district’s annual Golden Employee Award will be renamed for her. She smiles softly, a demure hand across her chest.
Once the breadth of the district offers their praises and tears are shed, Hayden will be officially retired. Her niece, Janet Jackson, was in attendance for the reverie, and was emotional herself.
“You refer to her as quiet, dedicated,” Jackson said; which she is, as well as a shrewd shopper, God-fearing and painfully honest. “She will tell you the truth, whether you like it or not.”
Maybe now, Hayden will go shopping. But most likely, she will go home. She hasn’t been able to return to Oklahoma for her annual family trip yet, and has relatives in Texas, Illinois and Hawaii that are overdue for a visit. After 57 years and two semesters on Zoom, she’s entitled to enjoy herself, no matter where it is.
“She’s not the type to want the attention on her,” said Byrd, but it’s undeniable, “she’s going down in history.”