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Chalkboards and ClipboardsMy Thirty-Five Years at The Montgomery Academy
By Tommy Jones
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Tommy Jones
All right reserved.
This is not meant to be a historical document, but rather my perspective and memories created in my thirty-five years at The Montgomery Academy (MA)—some personally experienced and others recounted to me by others. In some cases, names have been omitted to prevent further embarrassment.
After fifteen years of teaching in public schools, I was hired by Wade Segrest, Headmaster at the time. He told me later that he selected me over two other candidates who had doctoral degrees. I know I had strong support from two board members, Charlie Stakely and Dr. Buddy Freeman. At the same time, my son, Steve, was accepted into the seventh grade (it was called "form" in those days). He likes to say that they took me to get him, while I tell him that it was the opposite. Regardless, it was an awesome treat to drive back and forth each day with him. Thus, in the fall of 1976 began thirty-five wonderful, cherished years at a place I grew to dearly love.
A major attraction at MA at the time was the lack of clerical work required of teachers. Teachers were expected to prepare and to teach, not to do paperwork or "computer work." We were on the quarter system, with exams prior to Thanksgiving and spring holidays and at the end of the year. Report cards were issued at the end of each quarter, and we made reports every six weeks. The only other time teachers reported to parents was when a student failed a test. Then the dreaded "yellow slip" was sent home.
Over those years, there were seemingly endless changes. Let me mention a few that have taken place.
The staff consisted of Headmaster Wade; assistant Headmaster Ken Dyess; one full-time secretary known as the legend, Joyce Sweatt; one half-time secretary; Susan Shirock, the director of the Lower School; one guidance/college admissions counselor; one custodian; and one maintenance man, Gerald Bowles. They got it all done, despite the fact that grades K–12 were all located on the one campus in Montgomery, Alabama. Of course, the physical plant was nothing to compare with what we have today.
The curriculum was much more nuts-and-bolts. The last time I counted there were ninety-plus offerings in the Upper School, some with as few as two or three pupils.
Admissions standards were much more stringent, and there was a much more select group of students.
Teacher appearance in terms of dress for ladies and men was not as liberal. For example, male teachers wore ties every day.
Technology consisted of dial telephones, typewriters, and one or two 16mm movie projectors, which teachers had to sign up for.
As with admission standards, academic standards were different.
There was a true Honor Code System. Teachers would hand out tests or exams and leave the room.
Discipline was tighter. There were pranks and misbehavior, but punishment was swift, consistent, and appropriate for the misdeed.
Each teacher was expected to provide an appropriate devotional and lead in the Pledge of Allegiance each day.
The dining service was "home-owned." We had fried chicken each Wednesday and yeast rolls every day. On most days, three or four mailmen would come in to eat, paying one dollar. Of course, we did not have nearly the food choices afforded the students today.
One amusing anecdote from my first year at MA dealt with the custodian. I never knew his last name. He went by "Thomas," and he was ancient. Let's just say that he was not a poster child for high energy. There was a dead roach in the corner by the door to the administrative office. It stayed there one full week.
I spent all thirty-five years teaching seventh-grade life science and about half of those years also teaching biology until the school became too large for one teacher to do both. Given the choice of subjects, I chose the seventh graders, although at the time my heart was with the tenth graders. I was advised to do so by one who knew that "I would not like the direction that the Upper School was going." Second only to my decision to come to MA, selecting the seventh grade was a wonderful decision for myself as I grew to love the seventh graders even more than I already did, and I found teaching them to be so rewarding. Certainly, there were problems, but they were quite different from the problems I could have faced with older students.
Coach classes were a new innovation for me. Teachers set up help times for students desiring further instruction. Any students failing a test were required to attend coach class. Coach class took precedence over any extracurricular activities, including athletics. This is still true today.
Although most coach classes were and are held after school, my personal philosophy was that by 3:15, or 3:05 as it was, a student's brains were pretty much fried and had had enough school for one day, so I had my coach classes in the mornings before school while minds were still fresh.
Teachers did not, and still do not, have tenure. We had to prove ourselves each year, which is the way all schools, including public schools, should operate. Also, there was no salary schedule. You were paid according to what the school could afford and what the Headmaster judged you were worth. One-year contracts were the standard.
At some point soon, Joe Kirk became the custodian. Every night, Joe would clean each classroom, empty all wastebaskets, and wash every blackboard, K–12. Also, if anyone wanted to know what was going on at MA, they could ask Joe. He even knew about the "demon-possessed" senior trailer.
Wade was the perfect administrator for the type of school MA was originally conceived to be—a school meant exclusively for only the very top students. He was a very good businessman. School finances were on good footing. Wade took care of his faculty, never showing any favoritism toward any of us. He was a strong supporter of all the extracurricular activities at the school, not just the ones his children were involved in. If there was an event at the school, Wade was there, often with his wife. When the trustees decided to add a section, Wade warned that, in doing so, MA would have to have less-qualified students in order to fill the classes, and that this would result in lowered standards in order to keep the lower achievers in school. He was right on both counts.
I remember so well two of Wade's quotes. Referring to a child with problems, academic or behavioral, he would say, "The acorn does not fall too far from the tree." The other one came at a preschool faculty meeting in which Wade told us, "Try to make some child happy, and smile every day." Since then, I always tried to do that.
As an aside, some of the students privately called Wade "Fuddy." Because he would not permit something they wanted to do, they said he was an old fuddy duddy.
Following Wade's resignation, Dr. Al Kerr was brought on board as interim Headmaster. Dr. Kerr had a very good reputation, and part of his responsibility was to prune the faculty of what was perceived to be dead wood. He turned out to be a huge disappointment. Not only did he fail to accomplish what he was supposed to do, but about all he did all day was sit in his office, smoke, and write letters.
Robin Byrd became MA's new Headmaster. His "coronation" was held at a convocation at the Davis Theater where he was presented with a pair of track shoes so he could hit the ground running. Mr. Byrd was a young man in his first tenure as a Headmaster. His daughter, Anne Lane, was a sweet young lady and a fine student. As in the case of Wade Segrest, Robin Byrd did not attempt to curry special favors for his child. Also, as with Wade, Mr. Byrd's wife was a strong supporter of the school, but she stayed in the background.
When Mr. Byrd assumed his position, the school was undergoing a massive renovation to remove asbestos. Teachers had to pack up everything in their classrooms for storage, and all rooms, including the administrative suite, were completely emptied out.
Mr. Byrd smoked like a chimney. He once remarked that it would probably save him five years at "The Home." Mr. Byrd had a tie with "MCP" (Male Chauvinist Pig) on it. The story is that he said that his worst male teacher was better than his best female teacher. Ouch!
'Twas said that Mr. Byrd did not like old people. I cannot comment on that because, at the time, I was not old, and I got along fine with him. We had a cordial, professional relationship, and he was always accessible whenever I needed him.
Mr. Byrd's tenure marked the first major attempt to bring diversification to the student body. By and large, this was not successful because too many of the students were not qualified academically and did not blend well socially. I felt it was unfair to these youngsters to take them from their comfort zone during the day and then return them to their neighborhoods after school each day. It was not a formula for happiness and success.
Mr. Byrd's legacy was the beautiful new Lower School campus. But with it came the expanded enrollment. Mr. Byrd was quoted as saying, "We have to put bodies in those desks."
He displayed a unique way of letting a teacher know he or she was not going to be rehired. On one occasion, a group of eight teachers was seated at a table in the lunchroom eating lunch. Mr. Byrd came in and passed out contracts to seven of them.
My favorite quote from Mr. Byrd was, "Every student has the right to fail, and you as teachers do not have the right to take that away from them if that is what they choose to do." Unfortunately, I allowed myself to get away from that for a while. I lowered classroom standards so less-qualified students could pass.
Following Mr. Byrd's departure, Assistant Headmaster Paul Feakins became interim Headmaster. I am afraid the best thing I can say about Mr. Feakins is that he had a very nice family. In my opinion, he was arrogant with absolutely nothing to be arrogant about. After one of our seniors was accepted to SMU, he made the statement, "I got ________ into S.M.U." I guess her record and sterling character had nothing to do with it.
At his first faculty meeting, he made the statement that every teacher would get an $800 raise the following year, and anything above that would let the teacher know what he thought about him or her. He told John Tatum, "Now I have you where I want you." John replied, "Hoss, I'll be here when you are gone."
He applied for the position of Headmaster, asking the two members of the search committee to write letters of recommendation for him. I presume they both supported him anyway, but this seemed a highly unethical request. After all, what choice did they really have?
I will praise Mr. Feakins for one specific occurrence. One night, a car full of guys decided to egg his house. He ran outside, hurling eggs at their rapidly retreating car.
Dr. Emerson Johnson became our new Headmaster. At six feet seven inches tall, he was an individual you looked up to in more ways than one. Dr. Johnson was the polar opposite of Mr. Feakins in personality and people skills. He came in as the consummate professional, and his wife continued the tradition of staying in the background and supporting her husband and the faculty.
A specific example of how kind Dr. Johnson could be occurred when I rear-ended another car, causing my car to go on the disabled list for a few days. Dr. Johnson loaned me his car during that time.
He began the faculty retreats prior to the opening of school. The retreats were funded by the POA (Parents of the Academy). We faculty would spend two or three days off campus preparing for the beginning of the new school year.
As with any new person in charge, there were the inevitable changes. Dr. Johnson actively promoted diversity. Some of these results were positive, others not so.
For years a rival school, St. James, had monopolized children of officers at the military bases, thanks to their Headmaster, a retired general, Raymond Furlong. Dr. Johnson actively and successfully began recruiting these students.
By this time, 1998, we had gone to the semester system with final exams prior to the Christmas holidays. Over the objections of just about everyone, Dr. Johnson set up the midterm exams for after the Christmas holidays. To give Dr. Johnson credit, if something proved unsuccessful, he was willing to change as he did in this case, reversing his decision after a year or so. No one had wanted exams hanging over their heads during the Christmas holidays.
Another major change was unannounced and sprung on everyone. If the Middle School director had not pointed this out at a faculty meeting, it might have been some time before anyone found out that Dr. Johnson had banished exemptions from final exams. Previously, students with an "A" average were not required to take the final exam, although all did have to take the midterm exams. This did cause a furor. In a meeting, the Middle School faculty voted overwhelmingly, with only three dissenting votes, to restore exemptions. This did not happen until the following year, and even then the exemptions were diluted, with ninth and tenth graders not being eligible for exemptions. One typical example occurred with one of my more capable seventh graders. During the second semester, she was making Bs instead of her customary As. When I asked her about it, her reply was, "What for? I cannot be exempt."
Passing at MA had always been an average of 70 or above. Dr. Johnson did not like having to defend an F with a grade of 69 to parents, so the unwritten policy became to find good cause to lower the grade to 68 or bump it to 70. In other words, passing now became a 69 or above. I loved Diane Blondheim's philosophy when she became Middle School director: "Sixty-nine is not seventy so it is an F." We never had grades of D at MA, until later when Mr. Douglas became Headmaster.
Dr. Johnson insisted on sportsmanship from the coaches and players. If a player got a technical foul, he or she had a conference with Dr. Johnson and had to sit out the first half of the next game. If a coach drew a technical foul or if his or her conduct on the sidelines was not acceptable, then the coach was called in. If the conduct continued, the coach would be dismissed. He also expected coaches to dress appropriately for games. In other words, he exhibited strong leadership and expected MA coaches to be examples of good sportsmanship and role models for their charges.
On one occasion, there had been several days of rain, and the pathway to the football field for that Friday night's game was muddy. Two parents from the opposing team were negotiating their way to the bleachers when one remarked to the other, regarding the muddy path, "I wonder what MA gets from all their money?" An MA parent, following closely behind, answered, "A good education."
Another of Dr. Johnson's accomplishments was that he had the foresight to have the main gym air conditioned. This has had numerous benefits through the years.
Overall, Dr. Johnson's first few years were exemplary. Then came the infamous basketball coach episode. The story goes like this: Six dads whose sons were not playing as much as the dads thought they should (can you imagine that?) went to Dr. Johnson regarding the basketball coach, Greg Glenn, and the cost of the new library. Allegedly, their sizable pledges hinged on the dismissal of Coach Glenn. His subsequent firing caused an uproar in the athletic department and incurred the wrath of faculty members who were informed about what had happened. The athletic director told Dr. Johnson that the same thing could happen to him. This proved to be an interesting statement.
The upshot was this: we got the library, although some said it was stained with Greg Glenn's blood, and Greg went on to win several state championships in Texas. The irony of the matter is that none of those six boys chose to play basketball the following year.
It was at this point that Dr. Johnson's effectiveness as a leader seemed to decline as a result of what one faculty member described as "his deal with the devil." Complicating the entire library situation was naming co-head librarians for a year, then choosing one of them. There was no way Dr. Johnson was going to win this one. His judgment was seen as a delaying tactic to put off making a decision.
Summing up, Dr. Johnson's first few years were fantastic. His complete body of work proved him to be good for MA. To the end, he was an engaging people person who really cared for others.
Dr. Don Beers, a retired colonel, became our interim Headmaster for one year and did a fantastic job. He, too, had an engaging personality. Dr. Beers was an old-school, teach-them-the-fundamentals-and-hold-their-noses-to-the-grindstone educator who believed in accountability from everyone from the top down, and he accomplished this in a positive manner. This free-from-politics approach was welcomed by a large segment, but his overall philosophy did not go over well with a few of the newer teachers in the Upper School. As with all previous Heads, Dr. Beers's wife was fully supportive, and she did not push herself into the affairs of the school.
When the search for a new Headmaster began, Dr. Beers had already stated that he did not wish to be a candidate. At the urging of the search committee, Dr. Beers allowed himself to become a candidate. Then the most bizarre situation occurred. He was not selected! Everyone I have talked to in the business world as well as in academia said that asking someone to apply was tantamount to offering them the job. To do otherwise was simply unheard of. Yet that is what happened, and in a decision that would have far-reaching effects, Archibald Douglas, a man with no Headmaster experience, was hired. I have seen Dr. Beers's impressive resume and credentials. The mystery of this decision yet remains.
Excerpted from Chalkboards and Clipboards by Tommy Jones Copyright © 2011 by Tommy Jones. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2 Mr. Douglas....................10
7 Middle School Girls Basketball....................66
8 A Typical Season Of Msgbb....................91
9 Drips From Jones's Jug....................105