I sat at my computer Monday trying to recall each teacher I had during my 13 years of K-12 public education.
I can name every teacher I had in elementary school and junior high at Robbins — from Thelma Terry in kindergarten to Hubert Terry, Alan Shoemaker, Esau Burchfield and Garry Watts in eighth grade. But high school becomes fuzzier. I can remember some of my teachers at Scott High, but not all.
That’s probably a shame; it’s been 20-something years now since I walked across the stage and received my high school diploma, but that’s not such a long time in the grand scheme of things — and at 40 I’m way too young to use old age as an excuse for forgetfulness.
Yes, it’s probably a shame, but I also think it speaks to the measure of the impact that teachers have on the lives of their students. To each of us, some educators are simply more influential than others — for various reasons, and I don’t think it speaks negatively of a teacher if he or she was less of an influence on a particular student than another, although there are a rare few educators who make an indelible impact on the lives of every student who ever sits under their tutelage.
One of those teachers was probably former Scott High science teacher Harold Young. It was after I learned of Mr. Young’s sudden passing on Monday morning, at the age of 77, that I found myself trying to recall the teachers I had over the years. There were some I couldn’t recall — a sophomore geometry teacher whose face is etched in my memory but whose name escapes me; a junior social studies teacher whose voice I recall but whose name has long left my memory; and others — but Harold Young was not one of those.
If I had to look back now and tell you one thing about Mr. Young, it wouldn’t be what a great educator he was — although he was that — but what a kind and humble soul he was. He was a true gentleman, and I know I’m not alone in saying so; hundreds of his former students took to social media on Monday to say the same thing. Truthfully, he was probably one of the kindest men I ever had as a teacher.
Mr. Young was one of those teachers who I didn’t fully appreciate until years after I sat in his class. That’s the truly shameful part, but when you’re a snot-nosed 15-year-old who doesn’t really care too much about school, it’s not particularly surprising.
You see, I had Mr. Young twice at Scott High — once as a freshman for general science, and again as a junior for Chemistry — and I thought he was truly one of the dullest, most boring teachers I had ever known. It wasn’t until I had graduated from high school, gotten some maturity about me, and reflected back that I realized the very things I thought made his class almost unbearable at the time were, in fact, the things that made him exceptional as an educator.
I went to Scott High as a freshman having won the science award in my eighth grade class at Robbins. I had a good science teacher there — Alan Shoemaker — and I was an A/B student without ever cracking a book at home. So I thought I was pretty smart. It wasn’t long before that assumption was challenged — and challenged hard — by Mr. Young. Me and my friends would sit in the commons area at lunch and talk incredulously about some of the things he was trying to teach us. There’s nothing that will challenge the young human mind like science, because science by its very nature tends to challenge our core beliefs. And as a bunch of freshmen who all thought we knew it all, we weren’t having what this soft-spoken, mild-mannered teacher was trying to tell us.
Not surprisingly, I wasn’t a particularly good student at Scott High. I developed lazy studying habits in junior high when I was able to make pretty good grades without really applying myself, and I never was able to overcome that — not even in college. By the time I had sat through the teaching of some of my strictest teachers — like Lindell Posey and Sharon Stanley, both of whom made advanced English classes a nightmare for someone who didn’t like to study, but helped me develop a love for the written word that led me to a career in journalism — I figured out that I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did when I went to Scott High that very first day. But one thing I was smart enough to know: by the second time I had Mr. Young, for chemistry, I knew to sit up straight and take notes, because this man knew his business.
A few years later, when I was in a chemistry class at Tennessee Tech, one of hundreds of students in an auditorium setting, my professor learned that Harold Young had been one of my high school teachers and beamed with pride. He considered Mr. Young a personal friend, he confided in me, and went on to tell me that I should consider myself lucky, because I had the privilege of sitting under one of the best in the business.
Even then I didn’t fully appreciate the two years I had the opportunity to learn science from Mr. Young. But as the years went by, I began to understand more fully. It’s funny how the passage of time gives you a more appropriate perspective.
Eventually, I realized that my college chemistry professor was right. There are some, even in the field of education, who thumb their nose at the educational system in Scott County. But we have good teachers here.
I never took the opportunity to tell Mr. Young how much I appreciated his efforts as an educator, which is all the more unfortunate because I know I didn’t show that appreciation at the time. But if the flood of memories and reflections shared by his former students on Monday is an indication, perhaps Mr. Young had some idea of the impact he had made on countless young lives as a Scott County educator.
I could’ve told you 26 years ago, even as a high school freshman, that Harold Young was the softest-spoken, mildest-mannered, kindest-souled teacher I’d ever had. I just didn’t know until later that he was also one of the best.