A fresh reminder of why teaching is a noble profession

Published 7:18 pm Friday, August 8, 2014

Dear Georgia Public School Teachers:

It is new school year but, alas, the same old impediments: An out-of-touch federal bureaucracy; ideological state legislators who choose not to send their kids to public schools but intend to tell you how and what to teach, and a society that values reality television more than quality education. Sometimes I wonder how you manage.

There was a reader awhile back who harrumphed that I should let people know I have school teachers in my family before launching into one of my flame-throwing diatribes about public education. I assume he had been residing on Mars. Yes, I have three of them. I am proud of them all because, like you, they are making a difference in young lives.

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That brings me to Bill Gatlin, or more properly, Mr. Gatlin.

A couple of Saturdays ago I was invited to Mr. Gatlin’s 90th birthday party near Atlanta.  Bill Gatlin was my high school journalism advisor at Russell High School in East Point and a big influence in my life. More than 70 of his former students gathered to pay their respects. Several came from out-of-state.  Obviously, he influenced more lives than just mine.

Officially, he taught English Literature and French at Russell High, but what he taught me was a love of writing that has never left me. My journalism career was put on hold for four decades in the corporate world but managing the rigidity of complex organizations with their complex issues never dulled my passion for the written word. Bill Gatlin engrained that in me.

For the past 17 years, I have been fortunate to write a newspaper column that appears across the state of Georgia. I have been told by those who keep up with such things that I reach over a million readers a week. I will take their word for it.  I’ve never done a head count. All I know is that I have the same enthusiasm for writing today that I had when I was editor of my high school paper. That is what inspirational teaching is all about. That is why many of us came from faraway places on a Saturday afternoon in July to be with this good man. We wanted him to know he had made a difference in our lives.

Mr. Gatlin did not have to put up with the difficulties you face today in public education. He was in the classroom before discipline went to the dogs and parents went missing; before drugs and entitlement and No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and umpteen changes in curriculums over which you have no control, not to mention the latest teacher evaluation fad likely to last about as long as a snowball in Sarasota.

But even in those simpler times, Mr. Gatlin couldn’t make us learn anything. What he did was to make us want to learn. I’m not quite sure how he accomplished that feat except he loved his job and loved us and we loved him. We still do.

We gathered around the table as he reminisced about our times together at Russell High School and he told some of us for the first time about his experiences in World War II when his reconnaissance unit happened upon a German machine gun nest shortly after D-Day. Three of his comrades were killed and he was severely injured. Mr. Gatlin was captured and spent 10 months as a POW before being liberated in May 1945. He still carries the physical scars to this day.

Many of those listening in rapt silence to him that day are grandparents or great-grandparents. Some are widowed. There were bankers and professors and homemakers and shop owners and even a retired FBI agent. None of us resemble the fresh faces that appeared in our yearbook. But to Bill Gatlin, we were and still are “his children.”

A lot has changed since I sat in Mr. Gatlin’s classroom those many years ago, but one thing has not: Today, as then, teaching remains a noble profession. Remember every day why you do this. May you find the joy in shaping the lives of future generations and have a bunch of old people show up at your birthday party one day and tell you that you made a difference in their life. Just ask Bill Gatlin how that feels.  My deepest appreciation to him for what he did for me and for giving me the ability to tell you about it.