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The honor in being a public school kid

There is really only one thing you need to know about me. I am a public school kid. I grew up in downtown Charlotte and attended Irwin Elementary and First Ward Elementary before being bused out to McClintock Middle and then East Mecklenburg High School.

img001And all of the skills I have needed to succeed – from my first job in sixth grade as a Kid-to-Kid columnist for The Charlotte Observer to this job now – I learned in the public schools of North Carolina.

I learned to think critically. I learned to write. I learned to work across difference. I learned to lead.

My older son and my husband were recently in Cusco, Peru, and the whole city was shut down for a parade. Curious, they wandered over only to discover that the parade was in appreciation of teachers. My husband taught for four years in the public schools of our state, most recently at Northern High School in Durham. There were no parades. Maybe a cupcake, but no parades.

This state, our state, has a long, proud history of supporting our public schools. When did we stop celebrating our students and teachers? When did we stop celebrating in public our public schools?

At EdNC, as we celebrate the 175th anniversary of public schools in our state this year, we are going to be on the lookout for those of you who choose to celebrate your public school experience in public, and we are going to share those stories with the state.

Teachers are the beginning of our journey

Dr. Edwin Wilson receiving the John Tyler Caldwell Award (©KenBennett)
Dr. Edwin Wilson receiving the John Tyler Caldwell Award (©KenBennett)

Last fall, Dr. Edwin Wilson was honored with the N.C. Humanities Council’s highest honor, the John Tyler Caldwell Award. Dr. Wilson, provost emeritus and known as “Mr. Wake Forest,” spent the better part of his remarks honoring his public school teachers. Here is what he had to say:

But tonight I think especially of teachers at Burton Grove Elementary School and Leaksville High School in the small North Carolina mill town where I was a boy. Bessie Clark, my first teacher, taught me how to write cursively. I could only print when I met her. Homer Vernon taught North Carolina history in the 6th grade and took pleasure in saying that the public schools of North Carolina are the glory of the State. Miss Emma McKinney began every 9th grade English class by raising her hand and saying, “This is my signal” and then reciting a poem from memory. Carl Weatherly told us in a history class that we should read not just the history text but the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Sarah Ferguson asked each student in a 10th grade history class to stand in front of the class and give a lecture (I talked about Bismarck. I don’t know why.) And, most of all, Miss Helen Jones, the best teacher I ever had, who taught me English for two years and Latin for four years. Each student memorized a passage from Shakespeare and stood and recited it. I can still see myself, becoming Mark Antony for a few minutes and delivering a speech about Julius Caesar: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.” And as a climax to high school, Miss Jones and I and two other students read together Virgil’s Aeneid line by line. What a great preparation for the following year of college!

I emphasize our public school teachers because they are still at the beginning of all our various journeys in the humanities, and without them we might well not have come to our own love of literature and language and history. We should never fail to honor and reward them. As my sixth grade teacher said, our schools are still the glory of North Carolina.

I don’t know Mr. Wilson, but his remarks made me think back and remember my own teachers who left their own indelible imprint on my life. Mrs. Bowler – who in second grade gave me my first and maybe only diary, encouraging me to write. Mrs. Velasquez – who in fourth and fifth grades taught me the joy of standing outside on a cold day and taking a deep breath of fresh air, in addition to the joy of algebra. Mrs. Fincannon – who in middle school invited me to be part of a peer counseling program that was maybe the most important part of my educational experience because it taught me how to listen. And Judy Williams – my remarkable and patient math teacher in high school, who more importantly pushed me into student leadership.

Take a moment. Remember the teachers that made a difference in your life. Share your story with your child, with a friend, with a colleague, with us. Thank you, Dr. Wilson, for getting us started.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.