Ken Stickney: Back to school — this time, to say thanks

Published 2:38 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Audrey Ervin Jones’ erstwhile quest to honor teachers at Abraham Lincoln High’s Class of ’78 reunion might have had something to do with the fact that her own parents were both classroom teachers. She knows the territory.

Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that she left Lincoln as valedictorian and was prepared for success — nothing less would do, she said — when she enrolled at the University of Houston. That had lots to do with the men and women who taught her in Port Arthur.

Either way, what they taught her then stays with her now. She remembers well that high school science, courtesy of Ronald Spooner. She still knows about gerunds, courtesy of Henry May. There were many others, too, who poured themselves into her foundation for achievement.

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Forty years removed from Lincoln’s classrooms, Jones still carries the instruction with her, to her lasting benefit.

So when the Class of ’78 gathers for its weeklong reunion, she — and they — will have the opportunity to say thank you to some of the men and women who kept her on the right course in life. Teens sometimes forget to say thank you; years later, they might see the reason why they should. Sometimes, it’s too late.

It wasn’t just what her teachers taught her, she said, although what they taught was invaluable. Their lessons included what they did in the classrooms and hallways of Lincoln High, how they carried themselves, their displays of integrity and their unyielding insistence that students meet the mark. That meant as much as the equations and the parts of speech.

Her mission to thank others — she and classmate Veronica Taylor Matthews are organizing a 10 a.m. July 24 teacher appreciation program at Israel Chapel AME Church, where black education started in Port Arthur — appealed to me especially because my own three daughters teach. I have some idea about their preparation and commitment to their profession and to their students.

Lincoln High was integrated in the early 1970s, before Jones attended. Texas itself was more progressive about integration than most Southern states, especially after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. But I don’t doubt that teachers in mostly black schools had to put their hearts and souls into the students’ success.

San Antonio schools began desegregating in 1955; by 1964, 60 percent of desegregated school systems in the South were in Texas, according to the Texas State Historical Commission. More than half of black children attending integrated public schools in the South were in Texas. This state was better than most, but teachers and students who succeeded then ought to feel proud still.

I didn’t share Jones’ record of high achievement in high school or the record of high achievement that my own children enjoyed. I thank only myself for my high school graduation rank of No. 236 in my class.

I achieved such lowly status not because of my teachers, most of whom were good to great, but because of my own lack of maturity. It took some early stumbles in life to send me to college, determined to do better. Those same stumbles caused me to recollect what my high school teachers had always offered, and which I generally spurned. That was on me.

So the July 24 “thank you,” even if it’s belated for some, ought to encourage all of us to consider what steps teachers took on our behalf. A couple of hours at a reunion won’t be enough to thank them; that’s a debt that can’t be fully paid.

But what a great first step.

Ken Stickney is editor of The Port Arthur News.