Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Four teachers

On Tuesday I spoke at Beverly Woods Elementary School -- the principal, Caroline Horne, asked me to come talk to the teachers as they were getting ready for a new school year. One of the main rules of writing is, never use material once if you can use it twice. So here's the talk I gave. As you'll see, it's not exactly local news or anything... but maybe you have some memories of the teachers who made a difference for you.

When Ms. Horne called me a couple months ago to come and speak here, she was looking for me to give sort of a pep talk. To be honest, though, I’m not sure pep is what y’all need. I know it must be a strange time to be a teacher in CMS. If I were a teacher, I’d feel like I was getting a lot of conflicting messages right now about how I was valued, how I fit into this county’s larger plans, how much difference I was making in the world.

So I’m not going to stand here and tell you how everything is gonna be great, because I don’t know that, and I don’t think anyone else does either. What I want to tell you about this morning is four teachers who made a difference in one boy’s life.

My first-grade teacher was Clara Lewis. This was 1970, at a little elementary school on the coast of Georgia. I didn’t know until years later that it was the first year the schools in our county were fully integrated. I don’t know how it might have been different, because I don’t have anything to compare it to. All I can tell you is the first schoolteacher I ever had was a black woman, and I never knew there was anything different about it because Ms. Lewis kept our class busy and quiet and peaceful.

Now I will say that our whole elementary school was generally quiet and peaceful, and there was a reason for that. Our principal, Mrs. Barone, had on her desk a large wooden paddle that had an electrical cord coming out of the end. It was the stuff of legend. Nobody I knew actually got hit with the electric paddle, but everybody I knew seemed to KNOW somebody who got hit with the electric paddle. Now, of course, I know that she just drilled a hole and glued a power cord in there. But at the time, the electric paddle was the nuclear weapon of our elementary school. Nobody did anything really bad because we were all terrified that it would be launched.

By the way, feel free to use that electric-paddle idea here this year.

Back to Ms. Lewis: That first-grade classroom, in a changing school system, could have been a place of conflict or confusion. But instead it was a place of peace, where we all sat down together and learned. That was because of one great teacher.

My seventh-grade English teacher was Lillian Williams. My family had moved just before seventh grade started, from one side of the county to the other, and so I was in a new middle school. English was my first class on my first day of seventh grade. Ms. Williams got up and started telling us how much we would learn in the year ahead and how we’d all be ready for high school next year. Slowly, as she talked, it dawned on me that somehow I had landed in an eighth-grade classroom.

Well, it turned out that when I had enrolled, the assistant principal took one look at me – I was a big boy even back then – and assumed I was an eighth-grader. I was at a brand-new school, with no friends, and I was embarrassed. But Ms. Williams talked to me, and took a look at my test scores, and then she did something she didn’t have to do. She went to the principal and said: Let me keep him. So I took eighth-grade English, and seventh-grade everything else, and made two sets of new friends. I’m still best friends with a couple of those guys more than 30 years later. I even ended up playing Charlie Brown in the school play, which Ms. Williams directed. That year turned out to be one of the best years of my life, and it was because of one great teacher.

My 10th-grade English teacher was Brenda Hunt. When I was in 10th grade it would probably be fair to say I had not applied myself much in school. I had good grades, but I was just doing what it took to get by, and I had been hanging out with a pretty shady crowd. Ms. Hunt never said a word to me about any of this. What she said to me, instead, was that she thought I could write.

She was in charge of the high school literary magazine, and for the next three years I filled that sucker up with Stephen King wanna-be short stories, and authoritative-sounding essays, and sonnets written to girls who had never even heard of me. One thing I tell people who want to write for a living is that to be a good writer, first you have to be a bad writer. Ms. Hunt let me be a bad writer, and she showed me how to get better. I didn’t know it at the time, but I now had a career right in front of me, and it was because of one great teacher.

My high-school debate coach was Wayne Ervin. The other three teachers who played big roles in my life were serene and even-tempered. Mr. Ervin was… not. He used to keep a bundle of yardsticks in the corner of his classroom, and if he caught somebody not paying attention, he would crack a yardstick across the corner of his desk and just break it into splinters. Our senior year, some students went in together and bought him a steel yardstick about an inch thick. When I came back to visit from college, it was sitting in the corner of the room, bent in half.

But if you took Mr. Ervin’s salary, and divided by the number of hours he actually worked, he was probably making about half of minimum wage. He came in early and stayed late and traveled just about every weekend with his debate students and his Model United Nations students. I was in both of those groups. We were public-school kids, a lot of us lower-middle-class or worse, but Mr. Ervin had taught us so well that we went up against the private-school kids and held our own. I gained a confidence in those activities that I had never found in myself before. And that was because of one great teacher.

I suspect that many of you have already had students come through your classroom who will one day think of you as one great teacher. I know you don’t get paid what you ought to get paid, I know you don’t always get the respect you deserve… all I can tell you is that every time that bell rings, you are creating memories for the children in your class. And doing that job well can be a reward that lasts not only your lifetime, but the lifetimes of the kids you teach.

Let me tell one last quick story. When I was in high school, I got to be close friends with a guy named Virgil. We’ve been friends about 30 years now, and except for my wife, he’s the best friend I have. One day, years after we got to be friends, somehow we got to talking about the teachers we had when we were growing up. I was telling him about this great first-grade teacher I had at St. Simons Elementary named Ms. Lewis.

He looked at me like I had hit him with a brick.

Ms. Lewis was his grandmother.

And years after I had come through her class, of course she remembered that nice boy named Tommy. She’s in her 80s now. I still send her Christmas cards. And that’s the sort of thing that can happen in your life if you have one great teacher.


Sally Smith said...

Another great example of wonderful, inspiring writing...I feel fully confident those teachers LOVED it!!

Anonymous said...

There are never enough inspiring stories for teachers. They work so hard and we, the administrators from school level to federal level, keep adding to their frustrations. We ask them to do 180 things not even related to the curriculum for which they are repsonsible. We ask them to meet state standards and federal mandates and still remember that lonely hurting child that "needs" them for more than filling their brains. I am so happy to hear that you inspired teachers. Yes, I know you inspired them with all these comments.

James Overstreet Jr. said...

Mrs Lewis also kept a fly swatter for unruly students. Much of the peace she created stemmed from the fear of "The Swat". I shared Tommy's classroom that year, however I got swatted alot. I found first grade boring and talking in class far too exciting.

Cathy said...

Thanks for the inspirational words. I am a teacher. My son just began his second year of teaching this week and my daughter is also a teacher. It is a difficult job but the rewards are great.

tommy tomlinson said...

Jay, I don't remember the flyswatter... maybe I've been blocking out that memory :)