Mr. McGraw

Do you remember an influential teacher? What were they like? How did they influence you?

In my Senior year of High School I stayed in my Chemistry class long enough to realize that it was going to require more math skills than I cared to exercise, so I asked the guidance counselor to place me in a different science class. I ended up in Zoology, which was decidedly less academically strenuous. Furthermore, it was on the middle school side of the school. Vincent Middle/High School is in one building with two wings separated by a courtyard, which may not have made the class easier but it seemed like it did. We also had a new teacher, a recent college graduate. This was his first teaching job, and we were his only Senior class, the rest were seventh grade science class. I guess the administration just wanted to feed him to the lions. He had a rough go with those seventh graders, and we watched him grow more frazzled by the week. He only lasted about three weeks before he walked face first into the edge of partially opened door, which broke his glasses and cut his face so severely that he had to go immediately to the hospital and I never saw him again. The principal, Mr. Minnick, came in and finished the rest of the class teaching us about vernal equinox and summer solstice, and the seasons. Which I guess could be tied somehow remotely to zoology. Even so, he did a really good job and it was eye opening for a few of my classmates who had missed or forgotten our science teacher, Mr. Byrne, a former NASA employee, give a far superior explanation when we were in the seventh grade.

We went through a slew of substitute teachers. There was one particular guy that was very rude and liked to embarrass students in front of the class. I hope he got a job somewhere that didn’t have good air conditioning. Mr. Minnick, our principle, sat in a few more times because there must of been a shortage of substitute teachers.

Then one day we had substitute teacher that I recognized as a frequent shopper at Smith and Son’s Grocery where I had been gainfully employed the summer before, and as one of my Dad’s turnip green customers. He drove a mint green Cadillac and had gold rimmed glasses. This was Mr. McGraw, one of the first graduates of the newly integrated Vincent High School in early 70’s. He had come over from the segregated black school to join the football team with Harold Garrett, who had the misfortune of teaching my 8th grade sex education class. Anyway, apparently they had been a dynamic duo of quarterback and receiver, or at least been good enough for me to read about it in the newspaper thirty years later, and for the school to name the football stadium for Mr. Garrett.

That first day Mr. McGraw introduced himself as our permanent substitute for the rest of the year, informing us that our original rookie teacher had quit. We learned that Mr. McGraw was originally from Vincent, but didn’t make any boasts about football as I recall, and that he had recently retired from teaching in Ohio and moved back home to be with his mother.

Mr. McGraw was not in the least intimidated by the unruly seventh graders, having spent the past thirty years teaching High School in Toledo, Ohio. I believe that he also understood that for the most part, our senior Zoology class did not consist of overachievers and that we did not have very high expectations of him. Or rather, he didn’t have high expectations of us. 

I realized this after we spent a week studying ungulates and he wheeled in the TV from the library and we watched, “Mysteries of the Deep” a documentary about ocean life. We watched that film about five times that year. No one complained, we were all just ready to graduate.

The only lesson germane to Zoology that still stands out vividly from that class is when we learned about marsupials. “When I was kid, we caught a possum and dipped it in kerosene. Then set it on fire.” He offered this information in a matter of fact tone as a side note while he was teaching. It kind of took the class off guard. He followed it up by saying, “It took off through the field running.” He chuckled as his memory took him back to being a kid. It was not a chuckle of sadistic delight. It was a older man reflecting back on his childhood and chuckling at poor decisions. I don’t blame him though, there wasn’t much more to do in the rural Alabama in which I had grown up. 

We probably learned more about life and being an adult from Mr. McGraw than we did about Zoology. He was no nonsense, without being rude. He lacked that thin sheen of professionalism that greases many transactions in the corporate world. He was the same person in the classroom that he in the grocery store. That was probably more valuable than anything we could have learned in a cop out course. 

It’s often amazing how strange events can bring you into proximity to people that make an impression on you. After all these years I can still remember minute details about Mr. McGraw. The gold ring, and gold chain around his neck. The torn rotator cuff that was giving him trouble. The inflexion of his voice. How he pronounced certain words. But I’ve forgotten our original teacher’s name.

 

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Roller Blades

For the first eight or nine years of my childhood the road transitioned from asphalt to dirt almost immediately in front of my house.  About the time that roller blades became popular in rural Alabama, they decided to extend pavement all the way to the cemetery, with brand spanking new black top. Fortunately, they didn’t mix in the gravel with the black top for better traction. There is nothing quite like skating on fresh clean black top. All of us kids thought that they had paved that road for our personal use. We probably used it way more than any of the cars. Aside from funeral processions, and a man who visited his twin brother’s grave every Sunday morning, we didn’t see many cars go by.

That first summer we did a lot of skating. I remember wearing out a pair of roller blades. The wheels wore down to a wedge. As the cars began to travel on the freshly paved road they brought little rocks that peppered our skating rink like buried land mines. If you have ever hit a rock with your rollerblades while skating down a hill full speed you probably will not soon forget it. After a few of these wrecks, we began to look for smooth, level concrete. We found it at the Baptist church. It was a wonderful place to skate. Sometimes it was shaded, and there was even a built in water fountain if you didn’t mind bending down and drinking out of the faucet.

But nothing gold can stay. One day I skated full speed into the faucet and knocked it off the wall, water sprayed out in profusion. Jared and Creed attended the Baptist church and got in touch with the church leadership. We all stood around and watched the water spray out of the broken spigot until an adult came by to shut the water off. I think he was more annoyed about missing the Alabama football game than having to fix the broken faucet. I’m not really sure if our skating privileges were revoked, but I don’t remember skating over there anymore. I think I outgrew my worn-out skates not long after than and I never replaced them. I don’t think that I’ve skated very much since then.

Year-Round School

I went to Vincent Elementary School and Vincent Middle/High School. For a long time I thought that I had a pretty normal public education. For the most part, I enjoyed school because I enjoyed learning. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that my small town Alabama education, particularly the schedule, was a radical departure from the traditional academia. The Vincent school system, somewhat isolated from the rest of Shelby County, was chosen to operate on an experimental “Year-Round” schedule. I think that parents voted to try the schedule. In short, we attended school nine weeks at a time. After each nine weeks, we got a three week break, and a slightly longer seven week summer break. The year round schedule went into effect when I entered kindergarten in 1992 and concluded after I graduated in 2005.

I’m sure that qualified individuals conducted studies on the effectiveness of this schedule- I recall there being evidence of higher test scores- and you can probably can read about it in some moldy academic journal if you know where to find it. Just keep in mind that it was probably written by someone who never actually experienced year-round school as a student, which unfortunately, is a severe blow to their credibility. As someone who attended year round school until college, I realize that I am biased, but I am strongly for year-round school. Perhaps I like it because it’s all I’ve ever known, but what is not to like? I recall pretty clearly that schedule was popular with the faculty.

So why did Vincent stop doing year round school? I’ve always theorized that it was due to an out of sync athletic schedule. This was the only complaint that I remember hearing about year-round school. This is only partly true, the real reason that Vincent was taken off of year-round school was because Vincent was different.

Here is an excerpt from a Gadsden Times article titled Vincent fights to keep year-round school schedule from January 30, 2005.

Amy Martin, a teacher and parent at Vincent schools, said the year-round schedule works and doesn’t need to be changed.

“If you insist on everybody being on the same calendar, fine,” she told the Shelby County school board. “Put them on our calendar.”

All other Shelby County schools are on a traditional schedule and Vincent should join them, says School Superintendent Evan Major. But the county school board on Thursday night opposed Major’s recommendation. The board tabled the issue until two separate calendars can be drafted for consideration.

Major wanted one calendar for all schools because two separate calendars is inconvenient, he said. Major said he’s not disappointed in the board’s decision.

“We have a system and that system works,” he said.

Eventually, School Superintendent Evan Major got his wish, and today Vincent is on the same schedule as the rest of Shelby County. This makes me wonder how much progress has been halted in the name of convenience?