Carroll Leggettby Caroll Leggett

I confess. I had no clue what the buzz was about. I know next to nothing about pop culture and had never, ever heard of local-boy-made-good Ben Folds before the Piedmont Wind Symphony announced he was coming to Winston-Salem to perform with Matthew Troy’s amazing group. I am still about as clueless, but I now have tremendous respect for Folds after he gave a shout-out to my neighbor and friend, Phyllis Dunning, his high school English teacher.

Phyllis apparently didn’t teach classes; she taught students. Individual students. And she recognized something special and unique in Ben and gave him a way to express it. Ben still remembers it. Appreciates it. And has a special place in his heart for Phyllis Dunning who made a difference in his life.

For a very short while a full half-century ago, I was a high school English teacher, also. It was one brief period in what I now consider a long and happy life. I went on to law school. Politics. Public relations. Writing. Far more than a boy from a small town in eastern North Carolina could reasonably expect from life. But looking back, I see that one year in the classroom with fewer than 100 students as one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

I attended high school in the very classrooms where I later taught. I had good teachers who prepared me for college, for university and for the world. I think particularly about one English teacher. Like Phyllis Dunning, she knew there was more to learning than slavish devotion to textbooks. Her instruction in composition and grammar created the foundation for the skill that has served me all my life — writing.[pullquote]Phyllis apparently didn’t teach classes; she taught students.[/pullquote]

But she went further and brought the world into our classroom. She expanded our horizons, and she held our attention. And she got fired for it. The principal believed that the printed textbooks distributed by the county were the alpha and omega of teaching, and she believed all the world should be our textbook. Good teachers are like that. Like my mentor, I tried to be a good teacher.

My blood boils when I see petty politicians attack our public school system and demean our teachers. I ponder the injustice of it all — that successful people like Ben Folds give credit to their teachers for their success and yet teachers in our state are paid a pittance and made scapegoats.

I opted for liberal arts as an undergraduate. I am a strong believer that is a time for inquiring. For questioning. For mental exploring. For learning to think. And for learning to express in words and in writing what one thinks. Phyllis Dunning helped Ben Folds begin that process at the high school level and encouraged him to include expression through music. And he remembers.

It is grand to be remembered. Buies Creek, North Carolina, where I grew up and taught English for ever so short a time, is having its first Christmas parade this year. It has been organized on short notice and will be long on enthusiasm and probably short on marching bands, fancy floats, and the usual makings. Former students of mine, including Kenneth Upchurch who gives energy to the high school alumni association and plays Santa for Toys for Tots in the region, are the mainsprings.

They have invited me, along with their other former teachers, to participate in the parade. I am honored and will meet them at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the firehouse. I have no idea what will happen next, but it will be fine with me if we just sit before the fireplace and have a glass of eggnog or spiced cider. It’s enough that something we said or did a half century ago made an impression, and that makes me happy at this season and throughout the year.

By every measure, Ben Folds gave a great performance in Winston-Salem on Dec. 9. We thank him for that. But he did us a greater favor than just returning to his hometown to share his talent. He reminded us that public education is important, that teachers count, and that those great teachers, such as Phyllis Dunning, have lasting impact on the students who come through their classrooms. Applause!

Carroll Leggett is a public relations professional in Winston-Salem.

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