By Sallie Satterthwaite
Faith Hardnett knows from personal experience how important it is to tell children that they are good, that they are smart, that they can do anything they want to do. A long-time Fayette County educator, affectionately known by her students and the community as “Miss Faith”, she reveals her formula for turning children into successful adults. “Tell them how good they are,” says Faith Hardnett. “Drill it in. They’ll believe it. They believe what we tell them.”
This is the doctrine by which Miss Faith taught and counseled children from 1st to 12th grades for 37 years, all but two of them in Fayette County. She retired last year.
Her biography is straightforward enough: Now 63, she was born in Bartow County, Georgia, the seventh of nine children. Completed a double major at Morris Brown College of English and Education, a master’s degree at Georgia State University, another in counseling at West Georgia College (now State University of West Georgia) and two more in administration. Married to Claude Hardnett, mother of two sons. Positions in teaching, administration, counseling in Fayette schools. Retired in 2006, ran for school board, but did not win the election.
It’s 1970. Many roads here are not yet paved. The rolling hills are farmland. You’re a stranger here, in a rural county where it helps to know the old relationships – who are cousins, who works for whom, who has a bone to pick.
Like children everywhere in those days, Fayette children go to different schools, divided by color.
With only two years of teaching experience behind you, in Oglethorpe County, you’ve been hired to teach at Fayette Junior High School (now East Fayette Elementary). This is the first full year the county schools would be fully integrated.
And you are black.
Hardnett’s parents never let their children believe there was any difference between people with black skin or white, and she says she never thought of herself in terms of color. “That was the greatest gift they could have given me,” she says.
Fayette County schools were fully integrated when school started in August of 1970. “Some of the parents were nervous about it and escorted their children to school,” Miss Faith reflects. “But I wasn’t the least bit afraid. It was a beautiful, peaceful day.
“We were just finding our way – we made it work in Fayette County without any bad incidents, even though some didn’t want it to work.”
Parents didn’t know what to expect. They walked a little apart from their children and spoke in subdued voices. There were no shouts, no gestures. Everything was all right.
Faith describes the process as “the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had. The teachers had rosters and walked up to the stage. We called our students’ names from the stage, and when we had them all collected, we led them to our rooms and began teaching.” As simple as that. Or was it? One student called her a name, the N-word. She knew the boy was parroting his father and didn’t give it much thought.
There’s a closeness in Fayette County, the teacher notes, and that’s what kept her family here. “When we came, the school system was just budding. [The late] Merlin Powers was superintendent and became a very dear personal friend. He was a master at choosing people who had talents for specific needs.”
The late Robert Rowe was principal then, “the only black principal in Fayette County when I came, and he retired not long after that,” she says. Teacher quality has always been Fayette County’s priority, according to Faith, and administrative quality was “galvanized by good leadership. I was very fortunate to be part of that.”
The school system felt the same about her. Superintendents as well as teachers gave her the ultimate compliment by requesting that their children be placed in her classroom. She was also appointed to the Board of Education’s textbook adoption committee.
Working hard came naturally to Fayette’s newest teacher. “I grew up with a very strong work ethic, and I was taught independence at a very young age,” she says. “That had a lot to do with the way I am now. [My parents] taught me that the world doesn’t owe us anything. You have to earn what you get, including respect.”
When she was four years old she had chores to do, and by the age of ten was cooking for her family: biscuits, milk gravy and grits. She grew up working and going to school. Her siblings likewise “turned out all right, all preachers and teachers and singers – of gospel music, of course.
“I worked at college,” she notes, “and I got a four-year scholarship. I was never above anything: I cleaned floors, cleaned the tables in the cafeteria. When I came to Fayette County 35 years ago, I had to fight through barriers I would not allow to be barriers,” says Faith. “It wasn’t easy back then, but when you have a passion for what you do, you don’t think much about barriers.”
She calls herself a late bloomer in social development. She was never interested in parties, and felt that she was different in her intuition regarding people.
“I was called to mediate and facilitate crisis intervention. I just have a natural ability to understand people from 0 to 100 [years of age]. I can get into people’s minds.”
For several years during the 1980s, Miss Faith kept a secret from Fayette County. When age and illness made it impossible for her mother to live alone, Faith asked Claude whether her mother could live with them. He said, “Of course, she can,” and Ruby Moore came to the Hardnetts’ home “out near Fairburn.”
Two years later, Claude’s mother, an Alzheimer’s patient, came to live with them, too.
The cost was horrendous. They had to hire “sitters” to come to the house, and Faith had to borrow money to pay them so she could continue to teach. “We had no lights or gas at one point,” she relates. “We used a little barbecue grill until we could get the lights back on.”
And Fayette County had no idea.
Today the Hardnetts live here in a comfortable house Faith says was made possible by a former student who was in real estate. “It pays you to be kind to your students,” she quips. “This one showed such sweetness to his teacher. A lot of students became special friends to our family. It’s been wonderful living here.”
The house is a “13- or 14-room hideaway on four acres,” more than they need. Built in the early 1950s, it is the oldest house on the street, with big, formal rooms. It’s made of good materials, its owner says.
Claude Hardnett, 73, who worked for Amoco, was badly hurt in a 1993 accident. Left semi-disabled and with heart problems, he took medical retirement. His wife’s greatest concern is his health and comfort.
For that reason, she is beginning to look around Fayette County for a house where they can “downsize.” Their sons are grown and have gone their separate ways: Pierre, 31, is attending law school, and Cedric, 28, who attended college but wanted to be self-employed. He operates his own tractor-trailer cross country, “and loves it,” his mother says.
It was partly for Claude’s sake that Miss Faith ran for a school board post last summer. She found it hard, living together full time after being a working wife all those years. Being with him is making a difference in both their lives, and “makes it all worthwhile,” she says. “He wanted me to run for the school board – he really didn’t want me to work. We met a lot of wonderful people, and learned a lot about politics. It was a good, good lesson for me even though I didn’t win.
“I was disappointed for the people who supported me. To me, I felt like I lost the race and that was all. I just didn’t win the election. I ended up counseling my constituents.” She enjoyed the process, enjoyed meeting people, and brags that no one ever turned her down when she asked to put a sign in their yard. “The experience was great,” she says, “and I learned about politics – but also about my spirit.”
She puts huge stock in paying attention to God’s will for her. “When I ran for the board, I felt the Lord’s disapproval. I didn’t have the green light. But the Lord brought me to understand that, for me, maybe it will be another time and season.” She hopes so.
The light was green in 1970 when Miss Faith was hired to teach at Fayette County Junior High, then on to Fayette Intermediate School – 3rd through 5th – where she was assistant principal. In 1979, with a shiny new master’s degree, she became a counselor at Fayette County High, the only high school in the county. When McIntosh High School opened its doors in Peachtree City in 1994, Miss Faith served there as assistant principal.
From 1995 to 1997 she was assistant principal at Fayette Intermediate School, and in 1997 became principal at East Fayette Elementary School where she learned the names of every child in every grade. In 2003, Faith became the director of pupil and personnel services for the county school system, but continued to teach senior English as needed, at night school.
Faith Hardnett will be in a classroom again soon. She plans to take courses at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. “Not to preach,” she asserts. “I just want to know about the Bible. I want to learn everything there is to know about the Old Testament and the New Testament, to have the knowledge so that I can teach others.” She teaches a Bible class every Wednesday night at New Hope United Methodist Church.
Faith Hardnett believes that her success with students and her colleagues is based on her determination to treat everyone with the same level of courtesy and respect. She believes that while some of the positions she has held in her career have carried authority and power with them, she used them to touch lives, not to put herself above others.
“The principal is the lead teacher at a school and he or she sets the tone for the staff,” Hardnett explains, adding that she never asked someone to do something she wasn’t willing to do herself.
“What matters to me is, have I treated you with respect and dignity? Have I made you feel special and helped you if I could? The more you achieve and the more blessed you are, the more humble you should be,” she said.
Both Hardnetts love to cook, especially for their family – who are the center of their lives. It is not unusual for them to have 75 to 100 in the house for Thanksgiving dinner, says Faith. What is not usual is the “dessert” sent home with each sibling: a four-layer chocolate cake, from a 105-year-old recipe that came from Faith’s grandfather. Her own father was a chef, she says, and taught her how to make that cake from scratch. “It had to be perfect for my father.”
If Faith has been told once, she’s been told a hundred times: “You should write a book.” She has started one about a young black girl growing up in the mountains, whose father was born in Cumming, Georgia where black people were not permitted to live. She gives her father credit for “getting out there, doing for himself, not living in the past.”
Always willing to share the credit, Faith named women who, she says, had the greatest influence on her life. In her signature, animated style, she talks with passion of women who inspired her along the way. The first, of course, was her own mother, who believed in the mystic power of the seventh child in the family. “My mother said I would be wealthy one day because I was the dutiful child,” Miss Faith reflects. “I took good care of my mother. When I was four she had me reading books and acting out plays at church. I started school at age four, and was in a class with children two years older than me. I had to keep up and get ahead to meet the level of expectation that my mother had for me. Children live up – or down – to what we expect of them.”
Another person who inspired Faith was her chorus teacher, Beatrice Morgan from Bartow County. “She used my name to equate with my disposition,” Faith says. “She talked about me in class as being the faithful student. She gave me so much praise and had faith in me. She made me feel like I could climb Mount Everest.” And then there was teacher Louise Beasley, who motivated self-confidence by insisting on Faith reading a book and reporting on it with drama the next day.
Of the many honors that have come her way, three stand out. One was the STAR Teacher Award she won in 1980 at Fayette County High School. Her nomination came from senior Laura Johnson – whom Mrs. Hardnett taught in 6th grade. “I cried for three days,” Faith says.
Meanwhile, the more things change, the more they stay the same. “A couple little old ladies that I knew gave me a going-away party when I left East Fayette Elementary. They hugged my neck and said I was the sweetest “colored lady” they’d ever met.”
Her voice drops almost to silence when she is asked about the slur cast her way in 1970. “Fifteen or 20 years after the incident, that young man came to ask for forgiveness,” she says. “I told him I had never stopped loving him, and he said, ‘I know. That’s what haunted me the most.’
“It gave me a new understanding of the power of forgiveness.”