For over four decades, like song birds, they have perched on my shoulder, sweet reminders of their innocence and beauty. In my mind these not-so-young adults will always be seventh-graders.
The truth is they saved me. A first-year teacher, I was stunned by the negative attitude of my four ninth-grade classes. Surveys have revealed what mostly drives teachers from teaching is students, and what mostly keeps teachers in teaching is students. In my case, four classes made me want to resign at the end of each day, but one class — the seventh-graders — made me want to teach forever.
The seventh-graders posed no discipline problem. My 6-foot, 2-inch frame and baritone voice made sure of that. But obedience doesn’t always equal good will. It often equals fear or hides rebellion. In quiet rebellion the seventh-graders behaved well, but maturity, serious study and inquiry were far from them.
The seventh-graders became a happy haunt. Their 12-year-old faces followed me constantly. I told everybody about them, mainly because I had discovered that on planet earth there was a class of students, every one of whom was respectful, inquiring and teachable.
I’ve often wondered what became of blonde-headed little Lloyd Gray, whose father was the Episcopal minister. Four years later when Lloyd and I were at the same high school, Lloyd ran for student body president. Meridian, Miss., was in the throes of desegregation, and in his assembly campaign speech, Lloyd waxed eloquent: “Meridian High School is walking the tightrope of social change.”
Where are you, Lloyd? You’re not too old to be president. Run for something. Show the nation what intelligence, humility and concern for others can do.
Curly-headed Steve Forbert became a rock singer. Recently we corresponded by email when he performed in Atlanta. In class, Steve was never content just to raise his hand. He had to kneel in his small chair and wave his arm violently lest someone else beat him to an answer.
Oh yes, Ben Howell! Imagine a seventh-grader who is already radicalized, who hums Peter, Paul and Mary, and who understands — and dislikes — “the establishment.” And where are you, Ben? Do you drive a car built by an evil corporation and fueled by evil oil? Just kidding. I hope you haven’t lost your fire. You made your cute classmates think and stretch. It was amazing to observe a 12-year-old who read newspapers daily.
Sheila Hodges’ mom taught at Meridian High School. Maybe that’s why Sheila was always looking around to see if she needed to help out her first-year teacher by raising her hand when nobody else would. Thanks, Sheila.
Scotty Lisenby had bangs all around and down over his eyes, probably the result of Beatlemania. When Scotty was called on, he would dutifully pull back his bangs, have his say, then release them, falling back into anonymity. Marcus Stone always wore starched and ironed pants and shirts as did most of the other boys, except Ben. (Marcus was a relative of Oxford’s William Faulkner.)
Eventually I learned what made these 30 children special. It was their parents. This was just before the scourge of drugs and divorce that broadsided the nation and hence the schools. Parents then had only to compete with such as the emerging Sonny and Cher. Beyonce and Miley Cyrus were unthinkable. Privileged to meet every parent of the seventh-graders, I saw that they controlled what did and did not influence their children.
By their graduation time in the spring of 1972, I was far away in Marietta, Ga. My thoughts rushed to Meridian and to the fact that my seventh-graders were now young adults. I’m sure Marcus Stone was looking spiffy at graduation. Ben Howell probably had shorts on beneath his robe, certainly no socks. No matter. Marcus, Ben, and 28 other 12-year-olds had inspired an unsure beginning teacher, enriching his life.
In 1989 at the Atlanta Ritz-Carlton, I and four other finalists for Georgia Teacher of the Year enjoyed a fancy meal after which we stood to tell why we had stayed in teaching. When my turn came, I chose to say the 30 names of my first-year seventh-graders. After naming 20 of them, I had to stop. Not because I couldn’t remember the rest, but because I had become too emotional.
Teachers today still encounter such classes, but you can be sure their parents have successfully resisted the self-centered, sexualized, pop youth culture to which so many parents have capitulated.
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.