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Perspective | In Roanoke Rapids and beyond, teachers’ impact echoes through students’ lives

Every single teacher who is teaching right now is the teacher that our COVID-19 kids will remember as the one who helped them get through this time — their Obi-Wan Kenobi, their Gandalf, their Yoda, their Dumbledore.

The story of our teachers and the role they play in the lives of our students is a story of the cyclical nature of our common human experience, a story of courage, a story of thankfulness, and one that embodies the “hero’s journey.”

This past weekend, Roanoke Rapids High School celebrated its centennial anniversary. Residents, alumni, and state, national, and local representatives gathered to pay honor to this “temple of learning” that remains as committed to its duty of educating young minds as it did in 1921, when the first cornerstone was laid.

Wendell Hall, a member of the State Board of Education, said, “A hundred years is a long time. And 100 years ago, you had citizens in this county that thought and felt that each and every child should be appropriately educated and in a facility that would be equal to that education. … We are here today saying ‘thank you.’”

The Grand Masons performed a “cornerstone ceremony” at the celebration. Much like the cornerstone of Roanoke Rapids High School, cornerstones have been part of the construction or dedication of many buildings since the beginnings of our country’s history. Benjamin Franklin established the tradition beginning with the cornerstone at the state house in Philadelphia, and George Washington laid the cornerstone of our nation’s Capitol building.

But this particular cornerstone has a story.

A time capsule was placed in this cornerstone when the high school was built and first opened its doors to the students and families of Roanoke Rapids. The headline of the local newspaper from 100 years earlier read, “Nationwide Fight Against Disease,” referencing the Spanish flu epidemic impacting our country at the time. It spoke of mask mandates and hope for vaccines.

It was a uniting and collective reminder that the human journey is not separated by time or geography. Our response to COVID-19 and its impact on our community and our nation echoes a similar commitment to transcending the disruption and devastation of the Spanish flu so long ago. It also reminded us that the heroes of 100 years ago, specifically the Red Cross workers spoken of in the article, mirror the actions of our current health care workers and their fight to protect and serve us.

The importance of this article in this time capsule in this cornerstone of the Roanoke Rapids High School was not lost on those in attendance. We all understand the heroic actions of our schools, their leaders, and their teachers in facing the COVID-19 threat and any threat to our students and community.

This remains the story of education. Our schools remain the beacon of light that shepherd us through the darkness.

Captain Bill Robinson — a 1961 graduate of Roanoke Rapids High School, Vietnam War Air Force veteran, and longest-serving prisoner of war in American history – attended the celebration. He recounted the 2,703 days of his internment.

Interim Superintendent Julie Thompson said Captain Robinson told her he survived his internment by remembering home, Roanoke Rapids. He thought about “the experiences he had right here at Roanoke Rapids High School. He thought about his classmates and his teammates — how they were a family. He thought about teachers and not just the lessons he learned in their classes or the games they won on that field but about how they cared about and loved him.” He thought about Coach Hoyle “and how he was like another parent to him following the death of his mother.”

Thompson said, “These are the really big things because they are the cornerstone of our childhood that keep us going when times are tough.”

The Roanoke Rapids High School Centennial Celebration. From left to right: J. Wendell Hall, State Board of
Education member; Freebird McKinney, SBE/ DPI director of government and community affairs; Julie Thompson, interim
Roanoke Rapids superintendent; Catherine Stickney, DPI northeast regional director; and Captain Bill Robinson. Photo Courtesy of Freebird McKinney

Robinson’s story, Thompson said, is “about our community. It’s about our teachers, our teacher assistants, our staff members, our coaches, our bus drivers, our administrators, our students, our families, and our whole community who together had a lasting impact on his life forever.”

His story offers a way for us to think about the past, the present, and the future. Time is not only at the heart of the way we organize life, but at its core, it helps us experience it. We use our memories as the tools for living in the present and imagining the future. And as educators, we support, nurture, guide, and empower this process in our students.

Our teachers, now, need to see themselves as the keepers of the COVID-19 kids.

Our students are building memories they will reference the rest of their lives. And our teachers are the Obi-Wan Kenobis, the Gandalfs, the Yodas, and the Dumbledores of our time. In 100 years, they will be remembered as the cornerstone of how we transcended this pandemic.

Educators, what you do today will echo an eternity.

Thank you.

Freebird McKinney

Freebird McKinney is Burroughs Wellcome Fund 2018 N.C. Teacher of the Year. He is a social studies and philosophy teacher at Walter M. Williams High School.