Thursday, 9 February 2017

An Homage to My Public School Education

If anyone had cause to fear the U.S. public school system when I was a kid, it may well have been my own parents. Raised in tightly knit Mennonite communities—the “Mennonite fishbowl,” as they sometimes called life in such communities, in retrospect—they’d been taught to value a Mennonite education. That is to say, a private education.[i] At Eastern Mennonite High School, from which they both graduated, girls still wore prayer coverings as part of their daily attire, while some boys and all the male teachers wore dark collarless jackets – the typical Mennonite “plain coat.” They did not participate in extramural sports teams; adult chaperones accompanied them on all dates; and if you got caught sneaking off to the movies, you’d be suspended from school. At the same time, my parents enjoyed a deep sense of belonging at their Mennonite high school – a place where their teachers knew their mothers and fathers, and where when they sang together in chapel, everyone knew how to sing in parts.

Mom and Dad on their wedding day, 1962.
With my Grandpa and Grandma Hostetter, modeling the
Mennonite plain coat and prayer covering.
They’d been taught to value private, Mennonite education so much that when my mother left Eastern Mennonite High School for a public university, she spent the last weeks before her enrollment agonizing over whether or not to wear her prayer covering to class.[ii] Meanwhile, my father and all eight of his siblings attended a Mennonite high school, despite the fact that financial means were so tight, the family often fell behind on their rent. It was a time-honored tradition in Dad’s family that when one older sibling finished high school, he or she would work for the next two to four years to fund the next sibling in line through a Mennonite high school.

Our first house in Hickory, c. 1973
My grandparents, my parents, me, with my
Uncle Chuck and Uncle Darrel and Aunt Sherill. 
You might have thought, then, that when the time came for them to think of their own children’s education, my parents would have scrambled to find a private school option for us. Or, barring that, they might have considered home-schooling. But when they moved in 1972 to Hickory, North Carolina – where they raised my four siblings and me, and where we all went to public school, first through twelfth grades – my parents must have been ready to try something new. They had, after all, fled the fishbowl. They had left their families of origin in Virginia and Maryland, where they’d both grown up the children of Mennonite preachers. They’d left their communities of origin, too, where they were surrounded by fellow Mennonites.

They’d chosen Hickory, North Carolina, instead: a place where Baptists and Lutherans were plentiful but where no one, it seemed, had ever heard the word Mennonite. Whenever I identified myself as a Mennonite to my peers in school – and to their parents, too – the common response was a wrinkled brow: “You’re what, now, honey? A Mormon?” While I don’t think it was ideology, per se, that caused my parents to choose Hickory, North Carolina as the place where they’d spend their adulthoods – and bring all five of us up – I do think that, in choosing Hickory, they were choosing a significant change. They were ready to immerse themselves in a culture quite different from theirs.

I want to be clear: There’s nothing wrong with a Mennonite education. I had one myself, in college. What I hope to emphasize is that my parents had, as I see it, many reasons not to send my brother and sisters and me to public school. But they did. And while no educational system is perfect, I believe that the public schools of Catawba County, North Carolina served me and my four siblings well. In light of the political events of the past week in the U.S., I want to honor that now.

There's some feathered hair!
(Thank you, Farrah Fawcett.)
I’ve said that ideology does not drive my parents, and I’ve come to see this as a gift. They were Mennonite, yes, and they made sure we kids knew we were, too. My parents sought out what was then one of a very few Mennonite churches in North Carolina – a good half-hour’s drive from our house – and attended it with us, Sunday mornings and Sunday nights, and often on Wednesday nights too. We went to Bible school there every summer. As a child, I moved weekly between this relatively conservative church – where women did indeed still wear prayer coverings, where divorce was still openly censured – and my public school, where my peers could sing along with all the pop songs on the car radio, and feathered their hair like Farrah Fawcett. What’s more, their parents let them stay up late, Friday nights (I soon found out, on sleepovers) to watch Johnny Carson and old reruns of Doby Gillis.  

Early on, then, I saw there were other ways of thinking and being – ways different from my own family’s. Shuttling between my Mennonite church and my classes in the public schools, I was learning that, even in my little town, there existed various and quite different spheres – and that people in each of those spheres could be interesting or dull, kind or cruel. My weekly movement between these two worlds was, I think, my first cross cultural experience, my first hint that the world is wide.

My parents never expressed regrets about sending my siblings and me to public school – to exposing us to mainstream American culture in a way we might not have been, otherwise The only time I know of when my mother may have had second thoughts occurred when I was in 3rd or 4th grade and the movie Grease first came out. Starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John when they were gorgeous and young, Grease is a somewhat romanticized view – well, it’s a musical: a romanticized view may go without saying – of a Chicago public high school in the 1950s. It also features a PG-rated sex scene, between Stockard Channing and some greaser guy, in the back seat of the guy’s Thunderbird. My mother did not know about this when she agreed to take me to see Grease.

In retrospect, it amazes me that my mother ever took me to see a movie at all – much less a PG-rated movie. Much less Grease. Mom is someone who could happily live without ever sitting in front of a TV or film screen. But she had a friend – obviously a non-Mennonite friend – who could not stop raving about it; she’d seen Grease once for herself and then taken her own daughter, roughly my age, to see it too. The movie reminded Mom’s friend, I think, of her own high school experience. Or as movies can do, it recast her experience in a slightly more beautiful, nostalgic light than she could conjure in her own memories. It glamorized and heightened what she recalled of her teenage years in the 50s. Seeing the high school students of Grease drag-race and dance and fall in love under the bleachers, Mom’s friend was seeing her own young, idealized self and the friends of her childhood.

But nothing could have been farther from my mother’s own high school experience. Mom’s friend must have overlooked or forgotten this fact, in her enthusiasm for Grease, and when Mom and I hit that sex-in-the-car scene, halfway in, we both became deeply embarrassed. In my memory, I was embarrassed because she was so clearly embarrassed. She squirmed visibly in her theatre seat and  started whispering into my ear. “We can leave now. Do you want to leave?  This is terrible. We ought to leave.”

But I shook my head fiercely and slunk farther down in my seat. Somehow it seemed more embarrassing yet to stand up and walk out at that moment.

I tell this story not to embarrass my mother again, but to thank her. Here in this movie was a clear glimpse of what some in her community of origin might have feared about mainstream, secular high school. But she bit her lip and sat with me through it. I’m sure she talked to me about it, too, afterward. But she let me keep living in the world, the particular world she and my father had brought me to live in. She did her best to make sure I was equipped, emotionally and morally, to go out into that world, and then she let me go to it.

My parents supported me through public elementary, middle, and high school. They joined the  PTA and became rather famous, locally speaking, when my dad once bought all the second-hand chairs at a PTA fund-raising auction. They came to Family Night during Book Week and bought me my very first copy of Little Women when I was in the third grade. Later on, they came to my track and cross country meets, and to my athletic banquets. But they also let me, on a daily basis, navigate the world of school – the world of my mainstream peers – by myself. They let me take the world’s measure – to see what there was to see – and this as much as anything else I can think of has gone into making me who I am.

What was best about public school? I could write a book about going through the Catawba County school system in the 1970s and 80s – and who knows, maybe one day I will. But for now, I’m going to focus on a few of the teachers from public school who I still fondly recall.

Miss Sentelle in 2nd grade was, in retrospect, very young. It was her first year of teaching; she must have been just 22. She was one of those teachers whose last names changed a year or two after you’d had them, so that Miss Sentelle was actually Mrs. Henderson to the majority of her students over the years, though to me she is still Miss Sentelle. She was the first teacher who noticed my interest in reading and writing, and actively encouraged me in those pursuits. We had Reading Hour once a week, when you read your own book from home or the library at your desk, and so it was that in the middle of Miss Sentelle’s class I one day started to cry. I was reading Little Town on the Prairie and had just found out that Mary Ingalls went blind. Later I wrote a play based on Little Town on the Prairie, and Miss Sentelle let me and my classmates enact it for the rest of the second grade.

Oh my yes: this is me,
in Miss Sentelle's 2nd grade.
Book Week  in November was my favorite week of the school year, and Miss Sentelle seemed to love it almost as much as I did. For Book Week, Miss Sentelle read us stories. Then we wrote our own stories. We made book covers, too, that were hung in our elementary school halls. We had a Dress Up Day when we all dressed as a favorite book character, and we had a parade in the gym. Miss Sentelle dressed up like the little girl, Virginia, in the story, Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus – which she’d just read aloud to us. I dressed up like Mary Ingalls.

Mrs. Shumate in 3rd grade was another teacher who saw and encouraged my writing. She even let me read my stories aloud to the class. I wonder now if this made some of my classmates despise me – but if they did, they covered their feelings well, because all I recall of those times is feeling proud and excited. I was an overweight, way-too-tall kid – not until high school was I ever not the tallest kid in the whole grade – and I wore my hair in long pigtails: very uncool. But writing was something, I was starting to find, that I could do: that made me feel very happy and which seemed to have the power to make other people feel happy, too.

I don’t remember how I started writing my very first novel that year; it was called Four Sisters and was a plagiarized take on Little Women, a book which obsessed me then and for years to come. But it can’t have been a coincidence that I wrote it while in the third grade, when my teacher was letting me know, loud and clear, that she thought I had a gift for writing and was actively letting me explore it.

In 8th grade
In 5th and 6th grade, Miss Hamilton, too, was a teacher whose name changed soon after I knew her. (She became Mrs. Smith.) She taught an advanced section of Language Arts, with the same group of kids in it for two years in a row. As most of us do, I found puberty – from 5th grade through 8th – to comprise my least favorite years, but Miss Hamilton’s class every afternoon was an island of comfort and joy. Miss Hamilton also encouraged my writing and let me design and make her bulletin boards.

And yet – oh, the thoughtlessness of children! – a friend and I in this Language Arts class once made up a not entirely kind poem about Miss Hamilton. It wasn’t mean; we really liked Miss Hamilton. We thought we were just were just having a joke. But we called her “Hammy Hamilton” in our poem, and somehow this poem made it into the wrong hands – the hands of another teacher, to be precise, who brought the damning poem to Miss Hamilton. But Miss Hamilton did not punish us. She told us, in private, after the other teacher stalked out of the room, “I remember how it is when you’re a kid. Sometimes you just want to make fun of adults. I think we all did it, one time.”

Mrs. Eades in 11th and 12th grade taught a language enrichment class and supervised the school newspaper, on which I was an editor. I was also, not to put too fine a point on it, manic through most of high school – underslept, underfed, and underprepared. Mainly, I was just having too much fun. But my daily slew of activity sometimes bit my butt, as when, in Mrs. Eades’ class one morning, we had a big project due. So big was this project that we’d been working on it in stages for weeks; I should have had plenty of time to complete it. But I had not. I did not have it ready that morning. Had I forgotten the deadline? I think I must have; otherwise I can’t imagine how I dared show my face in that class.

But as I slid into my desk, one of my friends whispered to me that today was the day: the semester-long project was due, and I panicked. Scared and ashamed, I ran and hid in the bathroom. It was there that Mrs. Eades found me. She stood outside my locked toilet stall and knocked on it gently. “Patty?” she said. (Everyone called me Patty back then.[iii]) “I know what happened,” she said. (My friends must have told her.) “It’s all right. It’s okay. You can come out.”

How was it all right? I couldn’t believe Mrs. Eades at first. Then again, Mrs. Eades was not a liar. I opened the toilet stall door just a crack and peered out with one red, running eye.

“Everyone makes a mistake sometimes,” she said. “And I know your usual work ethic. I know your overall quality of work. I’ll give you a pass this one time.”

Getting inducted into the Beta Club Honors Society at
St. Stephens High. (Yes, for some reason we had to dress up as rabbits.)
At St. Stephens High School, I had many teachers who in one way or another inspired me, or pushed me to be a better self. There was Mr. Thomas, the history teacher, who would stride into class every morning in winter and rip off his sweater, then hurl it on top of his cabinet; this always struck me as funny and still does. More importantly, he used literature to help us engage with our history lessons; in his class, I read The Jungle and A Tale of Two Cities for the first time. There was also Mrs. Daughton, my exuberant red-haired Spanish teacher, who made me want to add a Spanish major to my English major in college, and Mr. Deal, who though he taught math, which I hated, never let me off the hook. “Stop studying the insides of your eyelids there, King,” he would say, if I drifted off in his class. And on at least one occasion he genuinely tried to figure out with me if I’d been traumatized, somehow, by math in my past. Why did I hate it so much? We never did get to the bottom of this, but I still remember: he tried.

Mr. Hoke,
c. 1981
No list I make of happy experiences in public school could be complete without Mr. Hoke, my Advanced English teacher for four years of high school, and also my cross country coach. Mr. Hoke was the person whose house I drove to, honking the horn, in the middle of the night, when I won All-State in the 3200 meters. I’d just gotten back from the track meet in Raleigh, and after my horn woke them up, Mr. Hoke and his wife came out into the yard in their pajamas to hug and congratulate me. Mr. Hoke also coached me through my first marathon, in Charlotte, and was at the finish line when I crossed.

There is much more to say about how much I loved running for the St. Stephens High track and cross country teams – and how Mr. Hoke as my coach helped encourage me throughout those years, how he helped me find and test my limits as an athlete – but he was as serious and skilled an English teacher as he was a coach. In his class, I diagrammed sentences. I wrote two research papers – with footnotes! – that I still recall. Mr. Hoke’s lessons in how to write an organized research-based essay are ones I repeated to my own students, years later, when I taught college. And look what we read in Mr. Hoke’s class in one year! Here’s the sophomore-year reading list: Jane Eyre, The Pearl, Animal Farm, Hamlet, The Old Man and the Sea, The Ugly American, The Robe, My Name Is Aram, The Good Earth, Lord Jim, Rebecca, and A Separate Peace.

Not the least of the memorable things Mr. Hoke did as a teacher was to have a Christmas tree in his class – a real, live tree, which the seniors were responsible for acquiring each year, no questions asked. On the last day before Christmas break, we’d turn off the lights in Mr. Hoke’s classroom except for the lights on the tree; then we’d sit under the tree. Mr. Hoke would sing Christmas songs to us – “Blue Christmas” by Elvis was his perennial favorite – which embarrassed us all profoundly but which we also secretly loved.

Here was an adult who enjoyed life so much! And wanted our company in it!

He, like all my best teachers in public school, widened my view of the world.

[i] While “public school” has a different meaning in the UK, in the US it refers to any school in a government-sponsored and subsidized system.

[ii] She did not. Her parents told her, “We trust you to make the best decision about this,” and my mother ultimately decided that her covering might create more questions or distractions than “be helpful,” as she puts it today.

[iii] But please don’t call me that now.


  1. How beautiful and I am so grateful that you could share the importance of teachers and how crazy influential they can be in our lives.

    1. Thank you, Leeler! Yes, all the recent madness re: who should be U.S. Secretary of Education has made me think about my own public school teachers again -- and to appreciate them even more.

  2. Loved reading your post; I can relate in many ways. My parents chose the homeschool route for my siblings and I. I attended public school for kindergarten and first grade and have fond memories of my teachers. After being homeschooled 3rd – 12th grade (I “skipped” 2nd grade), the teachers I first encountered at community colleges helped me transition from my less-than-stellar homeschool education to a college level. And I am grateful for them. One teacher that I met at the local community college, later wrote a recommendation for my acceptance to grad school at UNC-Chapel Hill. I also had a couple professors at a private university that encouraged me. I'm grateful for all of my teachers. Including my mother.

    Thanks for this post that shared your life and reminded me of mine.

    1. Thank you, Amy! I agree: Any teacher who sees her students as individuals -- who reaches out to address the individual's passions or needs, or both -- is a gift. I had many like that, and it sounds like you did, too.

  3. Great post. Reminds me of how much I value my own public education. Unfortunately the results of the current attack on public schools (I speak mainly of Mississippi but know that similar things are happening in many other states) will not be felt until 10-20 years later, at which time it will be far too late to reverse. I mourn for the public schools which have been such a huge part of my life for the past 45 years.

    p.s. love your bangs in 3rd grade. Reminds me of my own school picture day in the 2nd grade when I gave my bangs a very crooked trim.

    1. I mourn for the public schools of the U.S. as well, Paul Shelly -- they are one of the valuable public institutions that are already being damaged by the current administration and, I fear, will only be damaged farther. It breaks my heart. (On a radically different note: I know: those bangs! Talk about a homemade haircut.)

  4. Patricia - how I loved reading your story:) And: I remains me a wonderful teacher of mine. He taught biology and tried to encouraged me to become a teacher, too. He came to our house to speak with my parents that I really have the ability and presence to work with humans. At that time I didn´t believe that and didn´t trust myselfe to do that. I went my way and many years later I startet a four-years yoga teacher training. And now I do what I love and I love what I do. Teaching yoga and working with people who are in fear or uncertain ...... Evelyn

    1. Thank you, Evelyn! It's amazing to me, too, to think of the power a teacher can have over her students' lives -- that a teacher can make such a positive and lasting impact. In my adulthood I've realized that this truth extends to yoga teachers, too: as you well know! :-)

  5. just reread this again-I thought so highly of it -- I printed it out the first time I read it-- KEEP WRITING--mom

    1. That's so nice to hear, Mom! Thanks for all your kind feedback.