AN OLD PROFESSOR’S REVERIE
by Jeemes Akers
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
William A. Ward
After all these years, I am now more convinced than ever that the happiest and most successful people I have known in life share one of two characteristics (if not both): the ability to give themselves over for short or long periods of time to something more important than themselves; or (and) possess a truly teachable spirit.
This short piece concerns the latter.
One’s teachable spirit—as vital as it is—would languish and die without a teacher to provide stimulation. Have you had a great teacher that has inspired you?
The other night, after watching yet another black-and-white episode of Perry Mason on MeTV, I was ready to shuffle off to bed for the evening when my attention was snared by the opening scenes of an old Twilight Zone show.
The episode entitled “The Changing of the Guard”—written by Rod Serling—was, simply put, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen on television (and believe me, over the years I have watched plenty of television).
The episode started out with a kindly old English literature professor, Ellis Fowler, teaching his classroom of several boys at the Rock Spring School, a fictional boy’s prep school in Vermont. It was the terms final class session (the boys had already taken their finals) and were predictably bored as Professor Fowler read them a final poem before their Christmas Break. As the bell rang and before the boys could leap from their seats to escape, Fowler tells them they each passed their final exams. All of them are elated. Then he says “in my 51-years of teaching, I’m never had a class like this. An entire class of dunderheads! But genuinely nice dunderheads and I have no doubt you’ll each go on to make something of yourselves.”
I loved that scene.
I suppose that each of us who have taught for a living, for any appreciable length of time, have wanted to say that very same thing—or words very similar—on the last day of class.
Most of us resist the impulse, however, and hope for a better crop of students the next time around.
At any rate, in the next scene Fowler is called to the Dean’s office and informed that his services are no longer needed at the school as he needs to make way for younger blood.
Fowler is understandably depressed by this bad news and begins to question whether he has really accomplished anything significant in his half-century-plus in the classroom.
On a snow-covered Christmas Eve, his depression wins out. Unphased by Christmas caroling students or the reassuring words of his kindly maid, Fowler takes a pistol from his desk drawer and walks to a campus statue of the famous educator Horace Mann. On the statue’s plinth is Mann’s quote “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” Fowler, muttering to himself that in his long life of teaching he had won no such victories, lifted the gun to his temple.
Just then, a phantom classroom bell rings.
Curious, Fowler lowers his handgun for the moment and returns to the school and his classroom to figure out the reason for the ringing bell. In his classroom, he sees apparitions of several of his former students. He recognizes each of them and calls them by name. One tells him how a poem Professor Fowler read to their class gave him courage on the battlefield at Iwo Jima—where he posthumously received the Medal of Honor. Another of Fowler’s former students, who died of leukemia after exposure to X-rays during his efforts to find a cure for cancer, relayed how one of Fowler’s poems had provided him strength in that moment. Yet another applauded Fowler for his words of duty and honor which carried him through the tragedy at Pearl Harbor where he sacrificially died after saving twelve other men. The classroom was crammed full of young men and former students, now dead, each thanking Fowler in their own way for his classroom words of inspiration. Moved to tears by the experience, Fowler watched each of the apparitions disappear as the phantom bell tolled anew.
He returned to his home a changed man.
The show’s script was Serling at his best. It is certainly the most poignant—in my opinion—of all the Twilight Zone episodes (season 3, episode 37, June 1, 1962). I went to Wikipedia to get background information on this particular episode and learned that the saying on the statue is the motto at Rod Serling’s alma mater, Antioch College (and spoken by the College’s first president Horace Mann at the first commencement exercise). Indeed, after completing the script, Serling accepted a teaching position at the College.
More to the point, I turned off the television after the program and thought of the many outstanding teachers and professors who have been true guideposts along my life’s path. Many of them have no idea how important they have been to me: from Hilda Watkins and Ralph Mills in high school; to Dr. John Broome, Dr. Boswell and Dr. Tessa Nelson-Humphries Unthank at Cumberland College; to my Air Force colleague Richard Andrews (who devoted several decades to teaching elementary students after our Vietnam years); to Professors Tucker, Boyd, Bohon, Reuter and Worchester at Texas Christian University; to Pastor Ray Shelton at Ridgeville Community Church as well as the Weavers, Retallicks, and Muterspaws; to Robert Ellendar (a truly gifted teacher of the Word); to Barkley Moore, Rick Stephens and Larry Gritton at Oneida Baptist Institute; to Bill Phillips, Dr. Wallace Campbell, Dr. Fred Mullinax and his wife Rachel, and Richard and Dot Kennedy at Alice Lloyd College; to Gary Gibson, David Huff, Carl Sode, Paula Smith, Stephanie Allison (and so many others at JBS); to my many colleagues at the College of the Ozarks; to my former student and gifted teacher Patti Elliott; to my sister Vickie and Stan Coppock in Ohio; and, finally, to the world’s most dedicated elementary and middle school teacher Imogene Akers (who just happens to be my wife).
And, as you can imagine, this list only touches the surface …
Imogene and her colleagues went through an especially trying year last year when, because of the virus, they were forced to become experts in distance learning overnight. I saw firsthand the many days and nights of frustration in trying to pull off that herculean task.
In recent years, I have had the extraordinary privilege of personally thanking many of these aforementioned individuals for the imprint they have left on my life.
At one time, I thought about writing an autobiography entitled “An Interesting Life Not Particularly Well-Lived.” The most redeeming and valuable part of that book would focus on the immensely rewarding years I have spent in the classroom (college and high school).
It is always a special joy to hear from my former students.
As I think back, two experiences in particular were important turning points in my decision to become a teacher/professor. The first, was a movie released in 1967—at the very height of massive street demonstrations and anti-war activity—To Sir With Love. The script was written by one of my favorite authors, James Clavell, and focused on an Afro-American engineer who accepted a short-term position in a rough London East End inner-city school populated mostly with troublemakers and disenchanted kids. Society’s discards. Mark Thackeray was played brilliantly by Sidney Poitier.
If I was king for a day, To Sir With Love would be required viewing for every prospective teacher, college professor or education administrator.
In all academic disciplines.
To this day, as my wife and I travel and frequently listen to the 60’s Sirius-XM station, when I hear the title song by LuLu (To Sir With Love), I am moved to tears.
This past weekend we watched the movie again with my grandson Joshua (a.k.a. the “Snapper”). He had never seen the movie.
I’m not sure it had the desired effect.
The second experience that prompted me to enter teaching—and one which I have written about before in more detail—was my chance encounter with Mrs. Rhilda Watkins, who taught all the high school mathematics courses at Clearcreek Local High School in tiny Springboro, Ohio, the town where I was raised. With a last name of Akers, I had the seat right in front of Mrs. Watkins’s desk in every math class. For a teenage knucklehead like me, it was a fate worse than death. I was used to loitering with the rest of the under-achievers seated as far back in the classroom as possible.
To say that I underperformed and underachieved in Mrs. Watkin’s math classrooms would be the understatement of all understatements.
I’m quite sure that Mrs. Watkins viewed me as a typical (but innocent enough) “dunderhead” along the lines outlined by Professor Fowler above.
For that reason, it was a complete surprise when I bumped into Mrs. Watkins walking along Springboro’s main street one Saturday morning. I don’t know where she was going and can’t remember if I was heading anywhere in particular. It was just the two of us. A God-orchestrated moment in time that probably neither one of us recognized.
We began to chat.
She told me that she thought I would make a great teacher one day.
Out of nowhere!
That conversation changed my life.
If she would have been one of my parents, the school counselor, my pastor, my coach, or virtually any other authority figure in my life, that statement would have had no meaning.
But coming from her—from the Hildebeast herself—it changed everything.
I have often thought about that unlikely conversation in the years since.
We never know the influence our words may have on others …
Mrs. Watkins has long since passed. One of the true privileges I experienced in life was the opportunity to remind Mrs. Watkins of that conversation and the importance it had on my life when I saw Mrs. Watkins at a high school reunion many, many years later.
She cried like a baby.
When Dr. Jerry Davis—a gifted administrator and teacher in his own right—asked me to start a private college-preparatory school on the Alice Lloyd College campus many years ago, he named it the June Buchanan School. I have told Dr. Davis from time-to-time over the years, that running JBS was the most important thing I’ve ever done. “Miss June”—the elderly campus dowager empress and co-founder of the college—was still alive then, and it was an honor to lead our handful of students by Miss June’s house on our way to the cafeteria. Sometimes she would be sitting on the porch and would greet the students.
She loved the kids and they loved her.
Miss June personified, in my eyes, what an educator should be. She left a life of wealth and comfort to live a Spartan-type existence in her private cottage on the campus, itself located in a remote location along Caney Creek in the Appalachian Mountains. She sacrificed her life to an idea. To a noble quest.
When I taught Philosophy 300 at the College, in those early years, I would invite Miss June to class to speak to our students every semester.
She never failed to deliver.
If I close my eyes I can see her now. Well into her 90s, Miss June had a special presence that captured the attention of the students. She would often say that the ideal teacher was one who could inspire the students “and take them to the moon every day.”
Recently, a young lady asked me what was so special about teaching. I tried to explain to her one dynamic, in particular, that is unique to a classroom. It is what keeps me teaching: that magical moment when you see the twinkle in a student’s eyes that indicates he or she actually “got it.” That unique moment when a new understanding—a new breakthrough—takes place.
If you don’t live for that moment, and if it alone won’t sustain you, you’ll get swallowed up by the nonsense around you.
More so today than ever …