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The difference one teacher made

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comAugust 14, 2013 

Well, this is as good a time as any to say why I’ve been so touchy about public school teachers getting picked on by Republicans in the General Assembly. Truth is, of course, I’m not the only one, as we here in the editorial shop draw more response to editorials and columns about teachers than on any other subject.

People feel strongly about teachers, their own and their kids’, and they don’t like it when these noble centurions of the classroom, underpaid and overworked, are turned into political pawns by politicians who know better and ought to get a few disciplinary whacks up in front of the bulletin board, if you know what we mean.

So anyway, this brings me to Bettie Henley Vann Sharpe. The obituary appropriately ran at the top of the page on Monday. Ms. Sharpe was 91, and her life was long, full and enlivened by five nieces and their children and grandchildren, a lengthy career with Hudson Belk and, as the notice said, some years spent as a teacher in the Raleigh City Schools.

In that role, she saved my life once, and that is no exaggeration.

In the first grade at Aldert Root Elementary School, I was the youngest kid in the class, shy, with bad tonsils that would come out during that year. I thus did not speak loudly enough, and the teacher interpreted that as a lack of intelligence. She put me in the bottom reading group, and the truth was, she just didn’t seem to like me. It happens. Teachers can be miracle workers, but they’re also human.

It was a lousy year, and 2nd grade was not surprisingly about the same. I was off to a bad start that, had it continued, might well have seen me doing poorly throughout school and thought of by teachers as a kid without much potential.

In the third grade, I was assigned to Miss Vann’s class. She was tall, with a booming voice, a no-nonsense way about her (I didn’t know what no-nonsense meant then, but that’s what it was...) and high expectations. I overheard my mother telling my father after a parent-teacher conference, “They say she’s the best in Raleigh.”

The saving began when she put me in the top reading group. “If you try harder, you’ll be right in here with the others,” she said. She then proclaimed me the penmanship champion. Along the way, all through the year, I was singled out for some kind of minor accomplishment every week. Some years later, I realized I wasn’t the only one. In fact, she found a way to make every kid in the class a champion at something. It was her strategy, and her own triumph.

Oh, make no mistake, she didn’t tolerate bad behavior, and when her standards weren’t met, she made it clear. In so doing, she made us all want to live up to those standards, to earn her respect.

And she cared. Once, a girl who lived close to the school just took off and went home during the day. Miss Vann told the principal to watch her class, got in her car, and delivered the girl back to school. She’d just knocked on the door and said, “Let’s go.”

She kept teaching until the mid-1960s, and quickly moved up the ranks at the Hudson Belk department store after that. But for decades, her students would visit her at home, and later at the Whitaker Glen retirement community. I used to see her in the grocery store, and we’d hug and while we were talking one of her friends would come by and she’d introduce me as she did thousands of others as “one of my third graders.” And so we were, all our lives, her third graders.

After my mother moved to Whitaker Glen, I’d have longer chats with Miss Vann in the dining room, and she’d tell me about all the former classmates who’d come by with their grandchildren. Once, when it was just the two of us at her table, I worked up the nerve to thank her for saving my life.

“Honey,” she said, “I didn’t do that. With teaching, sometimes you had to go a little deeper with a child, particularly one who was shy. So with you, it was just a matter of knowing there was something in that little boy and I had to bring it out. I had to do that a lot, and that was the fun in it.”

If you haven’t thanked a teacher today, go do it now.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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