Commentary

Shaffer: CEO donates 100,000 pencils in honor of his favorite teacher

jshaffer@newsobserver.comMay 11, 2014 

— In 1986, Tim Gomez nearly flunked his high school English class, penning essays that rambled and clunked along, full of loose sentences and needless words.

He suffered under the merciless editing of Wilma Flood, a teacher who tolerated no slovenly prose, who red-penned all passive verbs and who handed young Gomez a fat, ugly F.

But in Mrs. Flood’s care, Gomez learned to hone flabby fragments into crisp sentences and to slog through “Paradise Lost” without jabbing tacks in his eye. The experience helped turn F’s into A’s and Gomez into the CEO of Dixon Ticonderoga, the world’s largest pencil-maker.

So last week, Gomez returned to Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City bearing a gift inside 40 cardboard boxes. In his teacher’s memory, he donated 100,000 No. 2 pencils, each with this message stenciled in green: “Thank you, Mrs. Flood.”

Students filled the gymnasium to hear this story, and each left with a handful of sharpened yellow beauties.

“I’m a product of Mrs. Flood,” said Gomez, 46. “She didn’t take my crap. I didn’t go from making an F to making an A. It was step by step by step.”

Wilma Flood taught more than 40 years, bringing Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare to the fighting Eagles of Northeastern. She wore a suit and pumps every day.

Until recently, Pasquotank County had only one high school, so if you lived there, you fought your way through Mrs. Flood’s senior English class. She commonly taught three generations of the same family. When she died in August at age 92, her students reflected, “She taught everybody I know.”

She had the rare ability to carry the words of long-dead Englishmen across the oceans and centuries – to make John Donne ring in the modern, adolescent ear. She cared enough to open her home on Thursday nights so students could watch Shakespeare on PBS.

You knew that every F came delivered with affection, a sign that she gave a damn and demanded better.

“She thought teaching was an art,” said Caroline Tatum-Carter, her granddaughter. “She was feisty. She had a master’s degree when a lot of women didn’t even go to college. Some people thanked her when they failed her class.

“She never felt disrespected,” Tatum-Carter added. “She got to teach the way she wanted.”

Special attention

When Gomez took her class, he was a three-sport athlete but a self-described “runt.” His parents were divorced, and his family lived on welfare much of the time. On weekends, Gomez worked 16-hour days at Pizza Inn.

Mrs. Flood paid him special attention, he said, maybe because she knew from his clothes and shoes that life had kicked him around a bit. He learned, slowly, that essays have structure, a skeleton that holds them together. He learned to make his writing flow from introduction to conclusion and to bolster his arguments with three main points.

“I learned humility very quickly,” he told a gymnasium full of students. “Thank you, Mrs. Flood, for giving me an F, a D, a C and teaching me it’s a process to eventually get those A’s.”

Pencils for all

Gomez designated half of his gift of pencils just for Northeastern students, and he opened 20 boxes at the end of his speech. On the way back to second period, they took a handful as if they were Tootsie Rolls. I went to high school back when dragons and Doug E. Fresh roamed the Earth, and I’ve never seen kids so excited about a writing implement.

“From now on, you can never look at your teacher in class and say, ‘I don’t have a pencil,’ ” joked principal Ron Payne.

The gesture thrilled Gomez, who reminded me of a giddy kid who just turned in what he knows will be a prize-winning theme. I’m guessing Mrs. Flood required all her essays written in ink, but she wouldn’t let this minor oversight deduct much from the effort.

She’d give him an A-.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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