I have reached the season of my life where I seem to know more people dead than alive. I’m sure many of you feel the same way.
It is that stage of life where we take stock of the things we should have done but failed to do or, perhaps, realize there are still things left undone. Some people call the latter a bucket list while the former is simply called regrets. There is not a thing we can do about regrets but simply sit on the porch, talk to our friends and family, and wish we had made a different decision. There is, however, something we can and should do about the bucket list.
As I look back across the years I am amazed at the moments in my life when I could have gone one direction but, instead, was pushed by someone who cared to go another. Decisions like these are like the bell that cannot be unrung and the decisions, good or bad, always seem to be a life-altering event.
For me one of those events that changed my life forever occurred in the fifth grade when my teacher, Mrs. Anis Clark, gave my life a nudge that changed me forever. To be truthful, I thought her the most beautiful, intelligent woman imaginable and, of course, at that young age, I was in love with her. Well, at least in my boyhood imagination I had a crush on her, as I suppose so many other boys in her class must have had.
Teachers, whether we realize it or not, have a tremendous influence on our lives, and I suppose that is one of the reasons that through the years I have admired and respected them so much. They are the most underpaid, overworked, and most under-appreciated professionals I know of. My daughter, a seventh-grade English teacher, must put in between 60 and 70 hours a week and in many cases uses her own money to purchase things for her class, including occasional food items for her less fortunate students.
Mrs. Clark was like that. She cared deeply for her students even though many times they came to school dressed in hand-me-down clothes that did not fit very well. I fell into that category and I know she cared for me. At least I would like to think she cared for me, but in truth I realize I was just one of many that she treated special.
The grade school I attended in Garrett in Floyd County was a two-story brick building built in the 1920s when politicians began to realize they needed educated workers for the Northern factories. The schoolyard was situated next to a creek and consisted of a high school, a grade school, a small, wooden gym, and a dirt basketball court. While I attended grade school, the restrooms were two wooden outdoor buildings, one for the girls and one for the boys.
During World War II all classes would assemble in the schoolyard in front of a pole flying the American flag and, led by our principal and teachers, we would pledge allegiance to the flag. I could not wait to grow up to be one of those older boys who had responsibility for raising the morning flag. Out of the hundred or so boys we had in both high school and grade school, there could be no greater honor than to be chosen as a flag raiser. This ceremony continued throughout the war, but at its end we no longer performed the ceremony in the schoolyard. I always regretted that and I suppose many of the boys, girls, and teachers did as well.
This was certainly true in Mrs. Clark’s class, which was located on the second floor of the grade school building. In her class we continued to stand each morning and pledge our allegiance to the flag. I suppose that may have been because she had lost both family and friends during the war.
The fifth grade classroom was located in the left corner of the second floor, which also served as the auditorium. This was the location where all the kids would gather to hear Claude Conley, the grade school principal, make the school announcements and where Mr. Conley is- sued his inevitable threats at which the school children trembled “yes” to, including me. Mr. Conley may have been the most feared man I have ever met, at least through my boyhood eyes. He was responsible for enforcing discipline in the grade school and seemed to take great pride and pleasure in this task. This was usually performed through physical punishment with a 20-inch ruler that he kept up his left sleeve. He would grab hold of your right arm, drop the ruler out of his left sleeve, and proceed to whack away on your behind. I don’t know of too many kids who wanted to visit him twice. After my third trip to visit him — I was rather thickheaded — I finally decided fear was the better part of valor.
My father’s only comment to Mr. Conley was, “Pour it on him.” That was common, for most fathers at that time seemed to believe in the maxim that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. I never knew of too many spoiled children in the area where I lived.
Mrs. Clark had a different philosophy, thank God, because my behind was worn out. By the time I reached her class, I had started to grow and by now was all arms and legs and was normally dressed in clothes that did not fit too well. I normally arrived early and at her request began to regularly wipe the chalk board in preparation for class. While I performed this task, she would normally inquire about my two older brothers who were now in service but had played basketball while in school.
During school recess, the boys would gather on the playground just in back of the school where there was a dirt basketball court with a wooden backboard and a rim with no net. You used to see these types of basketball courts all over Kentucky, but not so much anymore. The games were a lot of fun, and the boys were loud, boisterous, and enthusiastic. Many times fights among the boys developed which the teachers ignored and let the boys sort it out. I never understood why recess is sometimes shortened or cancelled in modern schools because children need time to rid themselves of accumulated energy. Certainly, we did.
Many times I would catch a glimpse of Mrs. Clark standing at her classroom door at the top of the fire escape watching the games. She seemed to enjoy watching the basketball games and was in attendance at all the high school basketball games on Friday nights, which were the social event of the week as the men and women came out of the hollows to cheer on their gladiators.
Her decision to intervene in my life came in early spring just as school was starting for the year. It was recess and I was hurrying through the auditorium to go outside to play ball. There was no running in the auditorium or stairways because Mr. Conley stood in the middle of the auditorium with a stern eye on those who would dare to violate one of his rules, while all the time raising and lowering his ruler up and down his left sleeve to remind everyone of the consequences.
Mrs. Clark came up behind me, put her hand on my shoulder, and gently guided me toward Claude Conley. My only thought was, Lord, what have I done to deserve this. When she sensed my unease, she simply patted me on the shoulder and smiled to indicate that I was not in trouble. I thought it was the most radiant smile I had ever seen as I stood up straight to make myself look taller.
When we got to Mr. Conley, she patted me on the shoulder again, looked at him and said, “Claude, I want JT to play on the school team.” You must understand that Claude was not only the grade school principal but also the grade school basketball coach. You must also understand that what Mrs. Clark commanded, you did, even Mr. Conley who simply nodded his head. Mrs. Clark again patted me on the shoulder and told me to go play ball.
That was how I came to be on the grade school basketball team — an event that changed my life.
That for me was the start, for by playing basketball I gained in confidence and learned the value of team play, self-discipline, subordinating myself to the larger team goals, handling both success and failure, and setting goals.
The values learned on the basketball court so long ago are the things I have carried throughout my life. Those values, in both peace and war, have stood the test of time. As I now look back across my career in the military, the intelligence and security community and, finally, as a college professor, I realize how fortunate I was to have had Mrs. Clark nudge me in the right direction.
The other day I heard from my cousin that she had met Mrs. Clark at the local post office and that she was very much alive and living on a hill near Bosco, Kentucky. That surprised me since I had not seen her since the early 1950s. She must now be in her late 90s.
Over the intervening years I have often thought of her. I don’t know why I had procrastinated for so long in going back to properly thank her for that act of kindness. I suppose I blame it on growing up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky when the boys of that time seemed to acquire a stoic nature and the habit of accepting life as it came. Not showing emotion seemed to be sign of manhood, an attitude I gradually abandoned as I grew older.
I’m not sure she will remember me or the show of care that changed my life. Nevertheless, I am determined to visit her and to properly thank her. It’s the next thing on my bucket list.
J.T. Oney of Mayking is an Adjunct Professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. He plans to write a future article about visiting his fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Anis Clark. Oney went on to star on his high school basketball team in Ohio after his family left Floyd County to find work.