Guest column: Miss Jenkins taught more than grammar
By Hap Alexander
Special to the Salisbury Post
School never was easy for me. This goes back to the first grade at Frank B. John School. There was not a name for it then, but I have ADD (attention deficit disorder). I was called everything from lazy to stupid.
You can’t imagine how hard schoolwork is for someone who can not pay attention for any length of time. I could not even copy off the blackboard, because just the act of moving my eyes from the board to the paper on my desk distracted me long enough to forget what I had just seen on the board. My parents even tried tutors. Repeating the third grade did not help, either.
When I finally got to Knox Junior High, my mother must have made a deal with my English teacher, Helen Jenkins, because she kept me after school every day for an entire year. She drilled me like a Marine drill instructor.
As I look back on how hard they rode me, I realize that they would never give up, and I am thankful for that now. Miss Jenkins wanted me to think she was teaching me grammar, but what she was actually doing was teaching me how to learn … learn in my own special way.
It still wasn’t easy. Two years in the eleventh grade at Boyden and two years in military school. I finally graduated from high school and then went on to graduate from college at Western Carolina. While she was still living, I wonder if Miss Helen Jenkins was ever aware of the contribution she made to my life’s development.
‘Sticktoitivness’: At age 11 I found that I had a knack for swimming. My parents encouraged me, hauled me to swim meets all over the state, and helped me develop into a pretty competitive swimmer. I thought it was about the competition, and I enjoyed winning, but it was really a lesson in love, dedication, self esteem, sacrifice and “sticktoitivness.” All of these lessons became part of the combination of ideas, hopes, dreams and choices that made me who I am. I continued to swim competitively for another 25 years or so, but the real lessons were learned in those first years.
My father, Bill, was a banker, an accountant type, to whom everything was black and white. Everything had to add up and balance at the end of his day. You know, the type of person who has had no grey area in his life.
One day, probably around my senior year in military school, my father sat down with me and handed me a piece of paper with two words on it, nothing else, just these two words: “meticulously” and “painstakingly.” His instructions were simple, straight forward, and black and white. He said, “everything you undertake in life, whatever you do, do it meticulously and pain-stakingly.” No gray area there.
I looked up the words. I found that their meanings are interchangeable ó being overcareful about detail, very careful and precise, very careful and thorough. I carried that piece of paper around with me for many years as a reminder of my father’s advice.
His unit was called up early in World War II, so Bill went where ever the army sent him, leaving behind his sweetheart, Kathryn, as so many boys of his time did. They got married in 1943, but Daddy went back overseas for the duration of the war.
One day, when I was very young, I found all of the love letters they had written to each other in an old trunk in the basement of our home on Ellis Street in Salisbury. I’ll never forget how nicely each little bundle was tied up with colorful ribbon.
I only got a short glimpse inside, but those were real love letters between two people who really loved each other. They shared that same love with my sister, Anne, and me, teaching us so much by their example. I imagine their life’s goal was centered around the care and love for our family.
Failed the stress test: I recently had a scare with my heart, and I realized that I might not live forever.
When confronted with the thought, I didn’t mind dying, but what really bothered me was that I still had something to pass on, something to share with my loved ones, and that I just didn’t want them to miss out on the kind of lessons that I had learned from my parents, coaches and teachers and all of the others. If I have one thing to live for, it’s that.
When my heart catheterization did not find any blockages, my middle son, Will, asked me, ” What are you going to do with your life now, Pop?”
All I can think of is that I still have something to share with my loved ones. They may never know Helen Jenkins or Kathryn or Bill, but they can learn from them through me.
So, that’s my goal ó that I can share their ideals. Mother and Daddy had been married 63 years when they died within one day of each other, and they never deterred from their love or their life’s work, which was centered around our family.
I sure wish I could tell Miss Helen Jenkins how she helped shape my life. Grammar was not the only lesson that she taught me.
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Hap Alexander grew up in Salisbury and now lives in Topsail Beach.
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