The job of substitute teacher is perhaps the most difficult job in the education world. In the year before acquiring my first teaching position, I took many substitute assignments at various grade levels. I went on to become a teacher and, later, an assistant principal and principal. I must confess: None of these jobs was ever more stressful and unpredictable as my work as a "guest teacher”. It takes a lot of courage and stamina to enter a classroom filled with children you do not know and to do the work of a teacher whose style and techniques you cannot fully replicate. Anything can happen...and it usually does.
An elderly man entered the office one morning. As the school's principal, I made a point of welcoming everyone. I stepped out from behind my desk and introduced myself to the guest at the counter.
"My name is Dr. Thurston Gaines," he said. "I am reporting for a subbing assignment for one of your eighth-grade teachers. Will you please kindly direct me to my classroom?"
I was a bit skeptical thinking that the pre-teens down the hall were going to have a field day with this man. I kept my thoughts to myself though and shook his hand. Leading him down the hall, I said, "Thank you for being here. Have a good day, sir. I'll be by later to check in on you and the class."
I said a silent prayer as he headed for the classroom.
After the morning announcements, I began my morning tour of campus. I decided to start with the junior high building.
Our substitute teacher was quietly speaking to the class...and all of the kids were absolutely focused on him. Amazed, I sat in the back and listened to him speak of his days as a pilot during World War II...as a Tuskegee Airman. Engrossed in his tale, I forgot that I had an entire school to run.
At the end of the day, I spoke privately with this magical man. How, I wondered, had my life's path crossed that of an historical member of the Red Tails?
"Let me get this straight. You only sign up for junior high assignments?" I inquired. "Those kids are our most difficult clients!"
"Mr. Ramsey," he began, "I was shot out of a plane in Germany and taken as a prisoner of war. They kept me in a concentration camp. Nothing can scare me now - certainly not teenagers."
Dr. Gaines proceeded to tell me of his days in the military when African Americans were separated into their own troops much as they were segregated in the general society. He spoke of his beloved wife and of his career as a surgeon after the war. He explained that he wanted to give back to society after retiring and decided to work as a substitute teacher. He wanted kids of the twenty-first century to understand the struggles of those who preceded them. He wanted to educate these children with regard to the history that is so often lacking in their daily studies.
There were many more opportunities for the man to cover classes at my school. Every student fortunate enough to be taught by him was richly rewarded with a first-person history lesson from an American hero.
My life was enriched as well from working with him. On one occasion, I lamented that I could find no great picture books about the Tuskegee Airmen to share with kids. I asked him if he would mind if I wrote one about him. He smiled happily and gave his permission.
I invited him to speak to my adult graduate students in my evening Cultural Foundations class for Northern Arizona University. He showed up in a suit and tie and talked for nearly two hours. My students - all educators pursuing their master's degrees - sat mesmerized as he shared his story.
One snippet from his presentation has always stood out in my memory. Dr. Gaines told his audience that, as a young man, he realized that he did not always have the same privileges as his white counterparts. He was not angry. He did not complain. He said that he just worked harder to prove that he could succeed and that he had achieved excellent grades in school.
"Well, there was that one F," he admitted. "It was in Citizenship. We were outside on a wintry day. I threw a snowball at a fellow student and was caught. We had been expressly warned to not throw snowballs. I was reprimanded and received an F for that term."
In our frenzied quest as educators to improve reading, writing and arithmetic scores on standardized tests, we are ignoring, to a great degree, the teaching of our country's history. My current students at the grade school level don't know the difference between the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Viet Nam War. My college students are not much better. One freshman actually said to me, after reading an article about the Holocaust, that he had never, in all his classroom days, heard about the concentration camps.
This is a sad insult to those citizens who participated in the events of our history, who sacrificed their time, their freedom and, in some cases, their lives. Many of these heroes are still with us today - able to speak, to teach, to inspire - yet the majority are nearing there final days. We must listen intently to their stories and allow them to guide us in the creation of our own stories.
On New Year’s Eve, 2016, Dr. Gaines soared to Heaven's Officers' Club where he, most certainly, is now reunited with his wife and fellow Tuskegee Airmen. Perhaps they are laughing around a table sharing war stories. Perhaps they are saying a prayer or two that all they accomplished in the name of freedom was not in vain and will not be forgotten.
Dr. Thurston Gaines was a true gentleman...a beautiful soul...a hero…for whom there can be no substitute.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2017.