Dear Public School Teachers:
Although I think I am supposed to know stuff like this, I can’t understand why the school year now begins in late July or early August. I hope you do. All I know is I never started school before Labor Day and was out by Memorial Day.
Somehow in that period of time I learned to read and write and add and subtract well enough that I was able to hold a day job for many years. Maybe that is because teachers had more authority to teach in those days than you have today. Those were the days before politicians decided they know more about education than you do — which they don’t.
Over the years in which you and I have corresponded, some of you have expressed the frustrations in your job, that you are being held accountable for things over which you have no control; that you are expected to stop society’s ills at the classroom door and the second-guessing by people who couldn’t carry your book bag. With three schoolteachers in my family, I know how hard your job is and how frustrating it can be. But I want to remind you of the rewards.
A few months back, I wrote a column about a school teacher in Rome and a 6-year-old student named Sebastian who had captured her heart. In this case, both teacher and student had a positive and likely a long-lasting impact on each other.
That column received a lot of responses, including a note from Rusty Floyd, a reader in Forsyth. He said the teacher in Rome reminded him of his late father, a teacher and administrator in Bibb County for almost 50 years. He said from letters his dad had received and visits made to him by former students, he obviously had a very positive influence on many young lives. Floyd mentioned that one of his father’s students later became president of CNN. That would be Tom Johnson, a man for whom I have the highest respect.
Johnson is a Macon native and a distinguished graduate of the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia. Upon graduation, he became a White House Fellow, worked in the Johnson Administration, was later publisher of the Dallas Times-Herald and the Los Angeles Times before taking over as president of CNN from which he retired as one of industry’s most influential leaders.
When I got Rusty Floyd’s note, I passed it along to Johnson, who told me Mr. Floyd was one of the great influences in his life. “Mr. Russell Floyd was my French teacher in the 11th and 12th grades in Macon,” he says. “Russell Floyd was absolutely determined that I would learn to read, write and speak French. He would keep me after normal class hours to drill and drill me on French.”
Johnson adds, “Later in life, I was offered the position of publisher of the International Herald Tribune in Paris. My French skills were among the qualities that impressed the owners of the IHT (Katherine Graham of The Washington Post and Arthur Sulzberger of the NY Times).
“Russell instilled in me confidence,” Johnson said. “He praised me when I did well. He held me accountable for my homework (which I always did). He showed great personal interest in me, as he did every one of his students.”
That is why you do what you do, teachers. You have the opportunity that most of the rest of us don’t have: to inspire a young person to greatness. Sitting in your class may be a future White House Fellow/industry leader, as was the case with Tom Johnson; or someone who will discover a cure for cancer, or someone who will become a great humanitarian or president of the United States. Or maybe it will be someone who will try to be the best they can be at whatever they do because you crossed their life.
Your reward? You will have made a positive difference in a young life and that young life will end up making a positive difference for the rest of us and they will never forget it was you who inspired them to do so.
Please don’t worry about the ideologues and their political lapdogs trying to scuttle public education. Leave them to me. You just keep on shaping lives. What a privilege that is.
I wish you all the best for the new school year. Stay in touch.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139