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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Remembering time at the head of the class

by Debra Hale-Shelton | January 5, 2020 at 1:51 a.m.

Once upon a time I was a teacher. The experience was no fairy tale.

I was neither the best nor worst of teachers. Like most I knew then and now, I simply tried to do my best, though it wasn't always simple.

In 1975, I left journalism to teach English 61/2 years at Earle Public Schools in northeast Arkansas.

I worked long hours, reading and grading papers late at night, making lesson plans, rereading the likes of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl and S.E. Hinton's young adult novel The Outsiders.

Even as a teacher, I couldn't get journalism off my mind. One year, I had some of my students turn nursery rhymes into a fairy-tale newspaper. English Journal, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, later published an article I wrote about the project.

During my last year at Earle, I worked with some seniors to start a mimeographed student newspaper. No fairy tale or fake news there, just the facts--a teacher's birth announcement among them.

Some of my other memories are encouraging; others anything but. I had more than my share of disciplinary problems and little support from many students' parents.

One year I gave a total of 19 Fs in two eighth-grade classes on the term's final report cards. I heard from one parent.

After sending a ninth-grade boy to the principal's office one day, he tried to attack me. Two male teachers held him off me while a third person called the police. I was in court the day the boy was sent to a juvenile correctional center. His mother was there too.

Three years later, I moved to the senior high school, where the boy was again my student. This time, he was a senior and quieter than the immature junior-high boy I remembered.

My students kept a journal and were free to write what they wanted. All seemed fine until I was reading one of his entries. In it, he wrote of stalking a woman and killing her "stone dead." Or was it "stone-cold dead?" I decided not to let him intimidate me.

The next day, I asked him for permission to share an example of good writing from his journal. He agreed. As I read the entry aloud, the class was silent. I never had another problem from the young man. And, yes, the journal entry was indeed well-written.

I commuted to work from my home in nearby Marked Tree. One morning, I awoke to find one, maybe two, flat tires--slashed, as I recall. I was sure a few students were the culprits. My reaction--perhaps not the best--was to pour the work on the suspect class for a few days and, without being specific, tell the students that when they got tough, I'd get tougher. The looks on their faces were clear: They knew why this was happening.

Other journal entries were kinder, even heartwarming at times.

One girl was writing in her journal when the lights in her home went off. "Three minutes later," when the lights came back on, she wrote, "I just wanted to say, I feel a little better. By writing in my journal, I get pressure off me."

After reading about Anne Frank and her family who went into hiding during the Holocaust, a youngster wrote, "They just kept on trying and trying until they were caught. Then when they were caught, they were trying until they died. If that ain't courage, what is?"

My students are now in their 50s--mothers, fathers, grandparents among them. One, Henry Razor, is a Chicago minister who called me on my last day at The Associated Press in Chicago after seeing my byline.

Another is Rene Henderson, a top student who is now a political activist in Faulkner County and former nursing professor. Her multi-talented granddaughter was featured in an article I wrote in 2016.

There's Judith Wilson-Eckersley, another top student who now lives in Colorado. She has since thanked me for intervening in a confrontation in which she spoke of being harassed and threatened by a jealous classmate and other girls.

"Thank you for that day," Judith told me in a Facebook message. "I am not sure if you remember it or not ... but it will always be in my memory."

And there's Michael Hood, now a Crittenden County farmer, husband and father. Like Henry, he called me at work one day, this time while I was reporting for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Michael recently reminded me of a play I'd written based on the old television series Welcome Back, Kotter, about a teacher and his students at an inner-city school.

Michael had the title role as Mr. Kotter. I can't recall who played the character portrayed on TV by a young John Travolta.

Another student, whose name I won't use here, has since gone to prison in a high-profile bribery case.

Like Michael, Rene, Henry and Judith, he was a good kid--one of my better students. I don't know if he'll read this column. If he does, I wish him well now that he's out of prison and starting over.

My students were creative if not always well-behaved.

While reading The Miracle Worker, a play about Helen Keller, I decorated the classroom bulletin board with examples of sign language. I would later learn that some students had used sign language to communicate answers to each other on a test.

Another day I was reviewing verb conjugation with a class of eighth-graders.

"Do did done. ... Go went gone," I said.

Apparently I had a beat to my words, and soon the entire class joined in the chant of verbs with me. One girl snapped her fingers to the rhythm.

She was anything but one of my better students, and I've lost track of her as I have so many others. But I learned from her; I learned from all of them.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 01/05/2020

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