by Rod D. Martin
November 4, 2013
It was 33 years and a couple of weeks ago, the air crisp in that first blush of “football weather.”
Ozark’s Elgin B. Milton Elementary School, a sprawling one-story complex of mostly cinder block and metal construction with a touch of brick here and there, lots of windows, no air conditioning, and more than a few portable classrooms, was getting its first respite from the Arkansas River Valley’s summer heat.
Pauline Halmes’s fifth grade class was in the second room on the back side of the school, the part reserved for we older students, who next year would go to the Middle School across the way and change classes each period like high schoolers (it all seemed very grown up, and more than a bit intimidating to some). In preparation for that, we changed classes too. Most of the day we were in our homeroom (my homeroom teacher was Mrs. Halmes, who also taught Social Studies), but for part of each day we had three other teachers, for Science, for Math, and for Language (reading, literature, grammar), and we lined up at the door and single-filed to our next destination. Though we’d had Music with Mrs. (Elizabeth, or Betty) Shedd in her own separate room since Kindergarten, this all seemed very grown up too, and had seemed more than a bit scary, long ago when we were fourth graders in our one room with our one teacher (nearly) all day.
My desk was by the door and the expanse of still-open windows beside it, the corner desk of a rectangular grouping of desks facing the opposite wall. The girl who would become my first girlfriend weeks later, the lovely and delightful Tammy Gary, sat to my right, in the direction of the teacher’s desk at the end of that row, also by the windows and facing diagonally into the room. To my left was a long line of wooden “lockers” (they had no doors).
The breeze was nice, when there was one, and the playground (that is, the older students’s playground) was just beyond my window. It’s hard to say what everyone else did at recess, because our group nearly always did the same thing. The previous year, apropriating a particular set of monkey bars, my older friend John Mark Bailey and I had organized a crew for our spaceship, the name of which now escapes me, and we flew extraordinarily daring missions daily. Now that he was at the Middle School, I was Captain, and that was of course a Very Big Deal. (It was also more broadly acceptable than our other fourth grade venture, the all-male Cobra Club, founded by my friend Robert Kirby, which had no particular purpose of which I’m aware, but in practice sought to make life difficult for the all-female Bunny Club. By contrast, the SS Whatever sported a fully-integrated crew).
Having largely devoured a new set (1978 deluxe edition) of World Book Encyclopedias my mother and maternal grandfather had bought for me around the time my brother was born toward the end of third grade, I was anxious to learn more about what was going on in the world, and had asked for and received my own subscription to Time Magazine a couple months earlier. I devoured it every week too. The election was approaching fast and I was intrigued by every aspect of it. I was certainly for Reagan, and could articulate why: indeed, mere months later I would find myself arguing for the Kemp-Roth tax cuts with parents who did not seem to properly appreciate the wisdom of the Laffer Curve (I’m sure they just loved that).
On this particular day in October 1980, I was daydreaming at my desk and making a “Rod for President” sign to tape up on my locker (which was four feet away, if that). It was not serious: it was just fun, like the SS Whatever or like playing Martin Enterprises (close allies with Ewing Oil: I was a big Dallas fan) in fourth grade or Bewitched at third grade recess (my beloved friend Angela Mashburn, who kiss-raped me in our fourth grade Sunday School room before I was smart enough to realize I should have kissed back, looked a lot like Samantha Stevens, especially at Halloween) or anything else children play.
That day, though, was the day that childhood ceased.
Mrs. Halmes came up behind me. She seemed terribly old in the way that anyone over 30 does to the barely double-digit crowd (she was actually 55), but she was energetic, deeply knowledgable, innovative and very wise. I loved her. I hadn’t realized she was there, and was embarrassed she’d seen what I was doing.
She was not. “Why don’t you do that for real?” she asked me softly, and proceeded to explain she was organizing class officer elections for the fifth grade (an important part of her Social Studies portfolio, she believed, though not part of the official curriculum).
I was mesmerized by the thought. I could really do this? Not so much in the sense of “I”, but in the sense of “really”: reality was a possibility? It was exhilarating.
And so I ran. I organized the crew of the SS Whatever, and they helped, Tammy perhaps most ardently. I asked my Sunday School class for their votes. I worked the lunch line. I made and put up signs, everywhere they were remotely allowed. And I thought hard about real things I could do to serve these people if they chose me, so that this would not be just an exercise in vanity, not just another game, but real. I wanted it to count.
And so it was that, on November 4, 1980, on the day that Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States, carrying all but six states and the District of Columbia, I was elected President of the Fifth Grade. And it too was a landslide: in a field of seven candidates, I received all but five votes.
With Mrs. Halmes’s help, I did make it count. And a few years later, I wrote the constitution of the new student government at the Middle School and was elected without opposition student body president. A year later we moved to Arkadelphia and, four weeks after arriving, I was elected class president against two fine opponents without a runoff. I was elected a Boys Nation Senator at Arkansas Boys State, and I was elected the youngest state chairman of College Republicans in America, and I cast the deciding vote in an attempted coup against the chairman of the Republican Party of Arkansas as a member of its Executive Committee when I was only 19. I was one of that Party’s two Platform Committee co-chairman at 20, Political Officer of the Cambridge University Conservative Association at 21, President of the Student Bar Association at my law school a few years later, policy director for a governor as my first job after law school, and President of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies for over six years ending six weeks ago. There were losses too, and those made me better than the wins.
Many if not most of those things, and many others still, I’d have never done, but for one sweet sentence of encouragement from one teacher, on one day, 33 years ago.
A friend of mine, Nancy Alcorn, has led a ministry called Mercy for 30 of those 33 years. Mercy takes in hopeless, desperate girls whose lives are broken. For the most part, Mercy girls come out restored, transformed, and making it count in their own communities. But Nancy tells me that when they come to Mercy, nearly all of them have been told repeatedly, not just by those abusing them but by the state agencies we pay to help them, that there is no hope, that “once an addict always an addict”, that whatever you are today, that’s pretty much what you’ll always be.
That’s a horrible, devil’s lie.
Encourage a child. Often. Encourage everyone, whenever you can. No matter how strong they may look on the outside, there is brokenness and hurt and desire for meaning within.
With no disservice intended toward Carol Harman, Betty Shedd, Gail Hillard, Janie Ford, Linda Marvel, Marti Greb, Ida Harris, Naccaman Williams, Diana Roberson, Beverly Slavens, Johnny Harris, Janet Benson, and perhaps above all Lloyd Bright and Mary Jane Cooper — plus many others not named and a host of ministers and college and grad school professors — Pauline Halmes was that one teacher who made that one big difference at that one key moment that changed everything else. Because she saw teaching as more than a job. She gave her life not only to rigorously educating empty young minds, but to instilling meaning and hope in their souls.
I owe her much; and she is worthy of much honor this day.