May 4, 2022

Remembering a quantity of quality teachers


           Our seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Nanelle Bacon was absent one day. Her husband, the Jesup Junior High principal, stood in front of the blackboard. I was daydreaming and busy watching the dust motes dance in the sultry September air.

            That’s when I heard a rich baritone voice, “Mr. NeSmith, can you tell the class the difference between quantity and quality?”

“No, sir,” I stammered, “I haven’t ever thought about it.”

            James E. Bacon smiled and—to my relief—answered his question.

            As a 12-year-old, I soaked up that embarrassing I-should-have-been-paying-attention experience.

This is National Teacher Appreciation Week. Reflecting on my quantity of quality teachers, I thought about lessons they taught me, beyond the stacks of textbooks.

            One of the earliest positive influences was Orange Street Elementary principal Tom James. His wife, Sara, was my fifth-grade teacher. Besides the curriculum, she taught me how to swing a Louisville Slugger. Mrs. James was a gifted teacher and knock-it-over-the-street softball player.

But when I was in the sixth grade, her husband inspired me to have the courage to stand up and lead. Years later—when Mr. James was approaching 90 years old—he led me to his kitchen and pointed to a note on the refrigerator. He said, “I want everyone to know that you will give my eulogy.” He went to Heaven still believing in me.

            For now, I’ll skip another junior-high story.

            The letters on the brick wall spelled out Wayne County High School, but we called it Jesup High. The big “J” on our football jackets was for Jesup. I never had an academic class with Coach Clint Madray, but he drilled into me—through torturous practices—that I had a backbone and the guts to scrap for what was important. Those life lessons have gone with me every step since 1966.

            Speaking of steps, I can still hear two of my favorite high-school teachers—Peachy Aspinwall and Jackie Egan. From 100 feet away, we could hear the stilettos of that pair clicking down the tile halls.

            I don’t click on a keyboard without thinking about my 10th-grade typing teacher, Mrs. Aspinwall. She was full of energy and fun. She gave me an irreplaceable skill. In our senior English Composition class, Mrs. Egan was more businesslike and demanding. She insisted we write every day. She pulled words out of my 17-year-old brain, words that I didn’t know were “up there.” If Mrs. Egan selected one of your essays to read to the class, that was better than the “A” she marked on the top of your paper.

            My honor roll of quality teachers is longer, but I go back to junior high. The distinction of being a college-bound student was for your English teacher to recommend that you take French in the eighth grade. My teacher refused to recommend me. I was deflated but not defeated.

            With the courage that Tom James instilled in me, I said, politely, “Mrs. Peterson, let’s talk to Mr. Bacon about this.” We marched down the oil-soaked and squeaking wood floors to the principal’s office.

            “Mr. Bacon,” she said, “I can’t possibly recommend this young man to take a foreign language.”

            “Why?” he asked.

            “He barely has a command of the English language,” she answered.

            Looking over his horn-rimmed glasses, Mr. Bacon asked, “Son, do you want to take French?”

            “Yes, sir,” I replied.

            “Well, then, Mrs. Peterson,” he said, “let’s give the boy a chance.”

            Mrs. Peterson might have been right. In college, I stumbled through Spanish. And 62 years later, I don’t know much French. However, I can tell you that I’ve had a quantity of quality teachers who deserve praise.

            How about you?