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From the Publisher's Desk – Trying to erase some mistakes (Aug. 5, 2015 issue)

The small pair of black shoes were new, shiny and laced just enough to be snug for the day. Khaki pants were freshly ironed with that definitive crease perfectly centered down each leg. A new shirt finished the attire, with buttons done up all the way to the neck as if a tie would be next. But, this little boy wasn’t wearing one. Maybe it was his signature that he always wore a shirt completely buttoned. Family members often tried to encourage him to leave the top unbuttoned, but he saw it as untidy.
In his hands he carried the necessary items for the day to complete whatever assignment was put before him. A new binder held 50 sheets of ruled notebook paper in pristine condition. Not a corner was folded. A small case held a freshly sharpened number two pencil, with an unused pink eraser on the end that had witnessed no mistakes thus far. An additional large eraser was also in the box just in case the day brought on excessive mistakes that needed to be eliminated. Years later he would wish that mistakes in life could be so erased. But for now the problems were simpler.
It was the first day of school and I was that little boy, entering the halls of Elm Street Elementary for what would be my first four years of education. However, I wasn’t entering alone – my mom was with me and she would be in the same building for eight years of my early education. She taught school and it was always the school I was at. We all know the tag that follows ministers’ children. “They are the meanest.” Now I don’t know that I agree with that but I am thinking teachers’ children have to be the complete opposite.
If I ever got in trouble my mom knew it five minutes later because she was just down the hall. The ride home would go like this. “Is there something you would like to tell me?,” she would ask. How could she know already?, my young mind would wonder. Is this a trick question? Should I play dumb. Unfortunately, the blushing cheeks of guilt would give me away each time. I wasn’t one of those children that got punished again at home, but the fact that I had done something wrong and my mom was displeased, and embarrassed, was punishment enough.
I didn’t get in trouble often. I can only recall twice in those first four years of education before the school was closed and we moved to the newly built Evans Elementary. It always seemed to happen when the teacher left the room. In first grade, Mrs. Woodruff left for a few minutes and some of the boys started seeing how far they could spit. Well surely I could beat that distance and I wanted to fit in. I kept from swallowing for about a minute, saved up a substantial amount of spit, and let it rip. I felt like one of the guys and a unique form of bonding had just taken place.
Mrs. Woodruff came in the room just as one of the boys shot another spit wad. She was horrified to say the least. How could she could step out for a brief moment and the room go berserk? Those who were innocent were quick to tattle on those of us who weren’t. A paddling in front of the class wasn’t near as hurtful as the embarrassment and the ride home with mom that afternoon.
By second grade, I had learned my lesson. I wasn’t going to follow in the footsteps of the troublemakers. But then, I saw a student put the eraser end of the pencil into the sharpener and it created an early rendition of cone heads. I decided my pencil needed the same. I rushed to the sharpener, shoved the eraser in and cranked away. When I pulled it out, the eraser was gone. I looked into the sharpener and saw the pink tip back beyond reach. I quickly sat down, just before Mrs. Rule returned to the room. Soon, a fellow classmate went up to the bright, chrome device and tried to push his pencil in. Nothing happened. Upon closer inspection, Mrs. Rule saw the problem. “Of all my years teaching, I have never had a student put the wrong end into the pencil sharpener,” she exclaimed. “Who would do such a thing?” I got identified by a fellow student, convicted and sentenced to go tell my mom what I had done.
I marched down the hall to mom’s first grade class, where she was holding a reading group. I went up to her and told her the what had happened. Shocked by what I had done and unsure what Mrs. Rule wanted her reaction to be, mom said “Well, what does she want me to do?.” I said, “I don’t no.” I returned to my classroom, where Mr. Ledford, the janitor was in the process of taking the pencil sharpener apart to try and fix the problem. “And what did your mom say?,” Mrs. Rule asked. “She said what do you want her to do about it,” I replied. Looking back, it must have seemed a bit smart aleck in attitude.
I seemed to become a little sharper myself after that. I don’t recall any other brushes with mischief but had some amazing teachers during my 12 years of Unicoi County education. Helen Wattles attempted to teach me to sing. Betty Daniel made my last year at Elm Street memorable. Pauline Rice was one of the best teachers I had. She gave me extra help to catch up with math. Edith Carter and Betty Keever were a delight for eighth grade to make learning fun.
Helen Briggs was a favorite in high school with biology. I hung on every word she said. Jane Moore helped encourage me in art and appreciation of it. Ruth Gaines was my first mentor in journalism and design. Nancy Gentry helped me to understand algebra and geometry. Math has always been hard for me. Gloria Harrell was one of my favorites. She encouraged me to think outside of the box with her creative writing class.
It is also nice at this point to be friends with my former teachers. I still see many of them around town. In fact, I go to church with Nancy Gentry and find her a delight to be around.
As school starts back, I am reminded of my early years and the many who have shaped me and contributed to my life. I encourage all teachers in our county to be someone that makes a difference in a child’s life. I encourage all youth in school to pay attention and stay away from pencil sharpeners.