Most of us are who we are, because of the adults who influenced us in our youth. Our parents, grandparents, older siblings, teachers and others. I was blessed to have role models who taught me to respect people of all colors, ethnic groups, and religions. As parents, my wife and I have passed this down, and I know our sons will do the same. Judging from America’s current turmoil, many folks have been passing down the wrong message.
As I watched what happened recently in Washington D.C., I recalled happier days. In 1988 I attended a presidential luncheon at the White House, and I even got to ask Ronald Reagan a question, which he answered quite well. Four years later, I later covered an inauguration with one of America’s most cherished traditions: the transition of power. George H.W. Bush passed the torch to Bill Clinton. I was proud to see America at its best. This year, when Vice President Pence and singer Garth Brooks chose to attend the inauguration, many Americans called them “traitors.” Let that sink in.
When I was in high school, I met a man who would be a major influence on my life. Edward H. Carter was making his teaching debut at the age of 22. He drew a tough assignment. Some of the veteran teachers were rather lax. Discipline was spotty, tardiness was common, and there were too many class clowns. So after a few hours of “Welcome Back Kotter” style behavior, we entered a real classroom, and had to deal with serious Mr. Carter instead of witty Mr. Kotter.
His style was no nonsense, no excuses, and no fun. Some of the older students tried to intimidate the rookie teacher, figuring they could run him off. It had worked before: a new guy comes in, starts enforcing the rules, and suddenly, he resigns. This time, that would not happen.
Quite courageously, this young teacher took on some of the disgusting behaviors of that era. It was not uncommon to hear racial slurs thrown around in public, and in the classroom. Yes, it was inexcusable. You can say we didn’t know any better, or our parents didn’t know any better, and in some cases you would be right. Mr. Carter wouldn’t hear of it. He had zero tolerance for bigotry, profanity, and bullying. Some of the older students, who were close to Mr. Carter’s age, tried to bully him, but he stood his ground. Sadly, few students stood up for him, because that was not the “cool” thing to do.
The heat would reach a boiling point every year in the month of May. As graduation time neared, some of the lazy students would express shock when they learned they wouldn’t get a diploma. They had failed Mr. Carter’s class, having missed numerous assignments despite his frequent warnings. The young teacher would not yield. The outcry was predictable. The failing students squealed, and their parents squealed louder. “Just let him make up the work!” they would yell. But Mr. Carter was a stickler for the rules. He had standards, and his students were expected to meet them.
Against all odds, the tough young teacher stayed, and helped change the school’s culture. For a record-breaking 45 years, Ed Carter taught thousands of students. The school is a far better place, now a nationally recognized school largely due to his influence. His fellow teachers had to step up their game to keep pace. After all, who wants to be known as “the easy teacher?” No one will ever say that about Ed Carter. He taught us our presidents (yes, I can still recite them, as can most other former Carter students). He taught us how to behave like decent people, taught us how to be good citizens, and taught us how to succeed in college.
He is now retired and quite active, and I’ve frequently thanked him for his influence on my life and career. He was the teacher who got me excited about government, politics, history and current events. From what I see on social media, his students are among the few who actually know the meaning of the word “impeachment.” Every day I work in journalism, I’m drawing upon the lessons I learned in Ed Carter’s classroom in Higdon, Alabama. He was a good role model, who worked hard to break the chain of hatred and bigotry. I thought of him fondly in recent weeks, watching the bad behavior of so many people at the Capitol. Apparently, they had poor role models in their lives.
I hope our nation can turn down the hatred, so we can show our children and grandchildren that America isn’t always like this. If there is a history of hatred in your family, please be the one who breaks the chain.