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Making a Difference: “Her Name was Mrs. Yarborough”
“You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up to be more than I can be.”
That’s a great song. We appreciate it because it’s good…like teaching. But when we really get to know something; experience its history that’s when we fully appreciate it. Teaching is that way too.
Before I talk about teachers making a difference and becoming more than we thought we could be, I’m going to talk about this song.
“You raise me up,” is an Irish song. The music was written in 2000 by Rolf Lovland. Moved by an Irish Christmas story, “The Whitest Flower,” about the Irish Famine, Rolf called its author, Brendan Graham, to listen to his song. Graham heard the song over tea. Told Rolf he’d call him.
Later that evening Graham came over with the first draft…everyone cried. There was no rewrite.
‘You Raise me Up’ was first performed at Rolf’s mother’s funeral a few weeks after 9/11. The whole world needed a shoulder to stand on then and teachers were there.
GRIT. “True Grit,” a great movie and some of us actually saw it while John Wayne was still alive. Dr. Hudspeth? Wayne got an Oscar for his performance and not only is “Grit” what this conference is about, it’s what I’m going to talk about.
GRIT: go the distance; remember you were once a student; invite others to be teachers; and tell your story. I’ll need your help for the last one.
Go the distance.
I’m honored to be here and I’m still here because God is not finished with me yet and has a joke or two she wants me to hear. I’m old, I’m retired military. I can quit tomorrow, don’t worry Dr. Wood I’ll be here on Monday, I hope! My point is when people ask me about my greatest achievement I have to pause; not too long because I’m old. But I’ve learned to say being married for over thirty-three years, regardless of my honey-due list that will keep me busy for at least another decade is one. Having a son who’s teaching English in a public high school; another son who will be commissioned in May are both things that make me proud. But my greatest achievement? I tell people I’ve not yet achieved? Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull tells us “Here’s a test to see if your mission on Earth is complete; if you’re alive, then it isn’t.” I live to teach and each day I find ways to go the distance. I encourage you to keep believing you can fulfill your dream. Teachers make presidents, Nobel laureates, even Donald Trump’s hairdresser!
You don’t get to the next level by stopping. Tiger Woods never won a PGA tournament without the 18th hole; you don’t finish a marathon after 26 miles [there are 385 yards more]. Going the distance is being persistent and teaching your students the same.
Let me tell you what persistence got us: the first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times. The Diary of Anne Frank was rejected 15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding once received a rejection letter that read “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” Include Margaret Mitchell, 38 no’s, but the classic, I think are the 60 rejection letters Kathryn Stockett received. There was five years of writing which included 3½ years of rejection letters before someone saw her genius. “The point” she says, “I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to. If you put your passion in a coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good, I guarantee…it won’t take you anywhere.” The message here is “if you stop improving your game, your game stops improving.” Can’t make the basket if you don’t shoot the ball; can’t make a difference standing on the sidelines.
You get the message? Go the distance! That’s why you can now read Stockett’s “The Help.”
And as you go the distance, remember you were once a student. I think sometimes we forget that. I do, until I hear myself. Like sometimes, for those of you who are parents, we hear our parents’ words come out of our mouths? It’s like for a moment we’ve been possessed. Did I say that?
Trust yourself and your students. Tell them the truth. Sometimes you can be the difference between jail and justice; prison and possibilities. Some of you are the first person many have seen of someone who looks like them who has succeeded. Don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Remember Spiderman? His uncle tells him “with great power comes great responsibility.” As a teacher don’t ever undervalue yourself as you remember what teacher made a difference in your life! Remembering you were once a student goes a long way. As my cousin once told me, “you don’t have to remember the truth.” She’s a teacher by the way. Don’t lie. Be honest. Remember you were once a student. Have fun.
Then invite people you know who should be teachers to join you. That’s my third point. I’m so happy to have the school districts join us. I think I always knew I was going to be a teacher. Especially for someone who liked to talk, which I did. If Ritalin had been around I would have been a prime candidate. No I take that back. We had Ritalin. It was called a paddle. Want to get me to shut up, wave a paddle. But my point is, we want good people to teach. This is not an invitation to “misery loves company,” or “come to my pity party.” It’s a reality. Teaching is awesome, but it’s not for everyone. There is no greater calling than helping your students know they are diamonds, and appreciate the value of your polishing or paddling. I wouldn’t do anything else. There are so many stories. Like one student I had last semester whose dad had kicked him out of the house. The student had no way to get to school so he missed my class.
When he returned I literally marched him to my office. Sat him across from me, and I listened. He’d hurt his dad. He knew it but he didn’t know how to fix it. These are the times when, like Dr. Yeomans, another mentor told me, you realize “Whatever you are able to bring to your students pales significantly when contrasted with what your students bring to you.” I told my student “dads who care don’t give up” and if he thought his dad still cared to write a letter to his dad and say how he felt. He loved his dad; knew he’d disappointed him. I know students don’t do optional, so I told the student if he wanted my help, he needed to go the distance. He did. His dad was touched; his dad was sorry and told him to come home. This semester, after telling my class I was ADHD. Seeing me in action they probably thought “Oh…so that’s what it is!” Anyway, a student came up to me at the end of class and said “Thanks! I am too.” He then asked me if I have any ideas on how to help him? Does this sound like misery? Invite someone to be a teacher.
After we go the distance; remember what it was like to be a student; invite someone to be a teacher, you now need to tell your story.
In teaching, you can’t separate this from who you are. My students can tell you lots of things about me. One of the things they will tell you, I LOVE what I do. As Jack Houston once told me, “Never let the truth get the way of a good story.”
Now the story. I would like you to close your eyes. We’re not in church so I really want you to close your eyes. Think of the teacher who made a difference, was literally the teacher who changed your life; went the distance with you and made you think you could do anything.
Now that you can see the teacher who is principally responsible for you being here…open your eyes. Tell the person next to you who that was, and what they taught. Now, that’s the teacher I want you to think about when I tell you the story I promised. In my story
“Her name is Mrs. Yarborough.”
“As Mrs. Yarborough stood in front of her 5th grade class on the very first day of school, she told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Armstrong.
“Mrs. Yarborough had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he didn’t play well with the other children; his clothes were messy and he constantly needed a bath. And Teddy could be unpleasant.
“It got to the point where Mrs. Yarborough would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then putting a big “F” at the top of his papers.
“At the school where Mrs. Yarborough taught, she was required to review each child’s past records and she put Teddy’s off until last. However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise.
“Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners. He is a joy to be around.”
“His second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.”
“His third grade teacher wrote, “His mother’s death had been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn’t’ show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.”
“Teddy’s fourth grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and he sometimes sleeps in class.” [PAUSE]
“By now, Mrs. Yarborough realized the problem and she was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s.
“His present was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Yarborough took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one-quarter full of perfume. But she stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrists. Teddy Yarborough stayed after school that day just long enough to say, “Mrs. Yarborough, today you smelled just like my Mother used to.”
“After the children left she cried for at least an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children. Mrs. Yarborough paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class, and despite the lie that she would love all the children the same, Teddy became one of her “teacher’s pets.”
“A year later she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life. Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy. He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had in his whole life. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would soon graduate from college with the highest of honors.
“He assured Mrs. Yarborough that she was still the best and “favorite” teacher he ever had in his whole life.”
“Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelors’ degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still the best and favorite teacher he ever had.
“But now his name was a little longer—the letter was signed, Theodore F. Armstrong, M. D.
“The story doesn’t end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he’d met this girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs. Yarborough might agree to sit in the place at the wedding that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom. Of course, Mrs. Yarborough did.
"And guess what? She wore “that” bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing.
“And she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together.
“They hugged each other, and Dr. Armstrong whispered in Mrs. Yarborough’s ear, “Thank you Mrs. Yarborough for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference.”
“Mrs. Yarborough, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, “Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.”
You are teachers!
Remember, no matter where you go; what you do, you will have the opportunity to touch and change a person’s outlook. Teachers have an obligation, “our own” Hippocratic Oath to save lives in a way only teachers like you and Mrs. Yarborough can. And we do that by having GRIT:
• Going the distance;
• Remembering what it was like to be a student;
• Inviting others to be teachers and
• Telling our stories.
The world is our classroom. We, you and I change lives every day. There is a Mrs. Yarborough in all of us. Don’t forget that; or I’ll paddle you. Thank you Dr. Hudspeth, I thank my Mrs. Yarbrough, and thank you all for listening.
And Dr. Wood and Dr. Cottrell, I do plan on being here on Monday.