Teachers made the difference

To the Editor:

I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1948 and left the Island in 1953. I spent more than five years living in Vineyard Haven, attended Tisbury High School, and had I stayed would have graduated with Tisbury High School Class of 1956. After retiring from the U.S. Army in 1993, with more than 39 years of military service, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. I recently reflected upon my education from student to educator, which resulted in the attached article submitted to my local newspaper.

The article speaks to Tisbury High School and some of the teachers who had a lasting effect on my life. There are many living on the Island that I think would appreciate this small tribute to the teachers I have named and to other teachers that influenced their lives. In fact, some your town news columnists bear the same last names of my former Tisbury High schoolmates. I thought you might be interested in publishing [excerpts]of the article in the Letters to the Editor section of your newspaper.

“… Miss Lambert, my fifth grade teacher at Tisbury High School in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts was the reason I liked to go to school. My sixth grade teacher humiliated me in class on one occasion. As vivid as this memory is, I still think of Miss Mitchell as one of my best teachers. While in the seventh grade, I made my decision to become a teacher. It was not the result of a carefully thought-out process, but rather the hero worship of a 12-year-old for Mr. Townsend, my history and home room teacher.

“Mr. Townsend was over six feet tall and wore his hair in a ‘crew cut.’ He had come to Tisbury High School directly after graduating from Tufts University, where he had played tight end on the football team. He was an imposing physical specimen. His glare, accompanied with his hands on his hips, would immediately quiet a noisy classroom. If you were particularly troublesome, he might physically twist your ear (a socially acceptable discipline of the time) as he escorted you from the room. Even when this occurred, you knew he cared about you and the despair of disappointing him was more severe than the physical pain. He was friendly and laughed with you. He seemed to be everywhere; in the hallways; watching with a smile as we played baseball during recess or soccer during lunchtime; in the study hall or another teacher’s classroom at the exact time we had gotten noisier than we should; and at every school event. I don’t believe Mr. Townsend ever knew of my hero worship of him. I admired him from afar and he never treated me differently than he did the other students. I now know that as a member of a single parent household, I was searching for a male role model, and I found it in Mr. Townsend. I decided then I would teach history to seventh graders when I grew up.

“The small schools I attended were safe, friendly, disciplined, and caring. The teachers knew each other, worked together, cared for the school, and were involved with their students and the community. The large high school I attended and graduated from was far different. The teachers simply stood in front of the class and did their job. You entered the classroom and left, with nothing worth remembering in between. Teachers may have wanted to do more, but I do not recall any that did. It was a place that, sadly, had no major impact on my life. My education survived only through parental guidance and self-motivation.

“Teachers were an important part of my life. They were the reason I liked going to school. I was safe with them being in charge of a portion of my life. I believed and trusted them. I now know those that influenced me greatly shared a love and a passion for what they were doing. They were good at it because they thought beyond themselves and believed their efforts would make a positive difference in the lives of their students and in tomorrow’s world. They had the satisfaction of knowing they had been provided an opportunity in life that was honorable and were committed to the teaching of those entrusted to their care.”

In 2003, at age 65, I became “Mr. Townsend.” I taught history to seventh-graders at a Yuma, Arizona Junior High School.

John W. Gillis

Yuma, Arizona