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Friday, March 30, 2007

“He Dreamed Bigger Dreams For Us Than We Dreamed For Ourselves”

I was asked to write about my favorite teacher at Douglass and how thatteacher impacted my life. I have labored with this task for several daysnow. As I jogged my memory and reflected on times past, I came up with adifferent “favorite teacher” everyday. If you attended Douglass for anytime at all, you’ll understand that. All of our teachers were specialpeople. They paddled our butts if they had too, and they taught us newskills and an appreciation for knowledge and learning. More than that,they taught lessons about life itself.

I can’t overlook the things I learned in first and third grade from Mrs.Dobbins and from Mrs. Cora Cox. These were simple lessons like—learn toshare things; play fair; don’t hit people; put things back where you foundthem; clean up your mess; don’t take things that aren’t yours; say you’resorry when you hurt somebody; wash your hands before your eat; and lookboth ways before your cross the street. I still remember Mrs. Cox’sadmonishment—“don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.” Withwisdom like that, it’s no wonder she became a Tennessee teacher of the year.

How could I say the late Mr. V. O. Dobbins wasn’t a favorite teacher?Give the gentleman his due. For years, his leadership as principal definedthe blueprint for Douglass School. He created the momentum for apositive learning environment and a shared understanding among teachers andthe staff. He was publicly impressive and displayed energizing leadershipin our community. Can’t you hear him reciting one of his favorite poemsfrom memory. “IF” by Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head whenall about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; If you can trustyourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubtingtoo;… “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth ofdistance run - Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, And - whichis more - you'll be a Man my son!”

Perhaps one of the teachers who coached the Tigers or the Tigerettes downthrough the years was your favorite teacher. Among others, the listincludes C.C. Kizer, John Cox, Dan Palmer, Robert Deering, Shannon Jolley,Cora Cox, Queen E. Jackson, Wilbur C. Hendricks, and V.O. Dobbins, (andpossibly others I’ve never heard about). These teachers stressed anenduring lessons. When wearing the gold and blue, we were expected totriumph—to achieve decisive and significant victory and success regardlessof the difficulties or obstacle in front of us. That’s the spirit of aTiger!

How could I say that Mr. Howard Young wasn’t my favorite teacher? Incollege, I knew more about the life and works of William Shakespeare thanany of the students in my English Literature class. That was because ofMr. Young’s obsession with Shakespeare and his insistence that his studentslearn to love the man’s writings. And, nearly everyone I know who couldplay a musical instrument learned how to play under Mr. Young (or Dr.Shannon’s) tutelage. (I’ll always remember Mr. Young leading the DouglassMarching Band and those high stepping majorettes down Broad Street onThursday afternoon before the football game.)

As I narrowed my choices to a favorite teacher, I kept coming back to oneindividual--Oscar Roger Gill. Mr. Gill was my favorite teacher simplybecause of his personal style. He was competent, optimistic,inspirational, punctual, and a person of the utmost integrity. He didn’tbelieve in “N.S.T.” and he wouldn’t allow us to practice it either. If hesaid Student Council meeting begins at 7:45 a.m., he meant 7:45 am., andnot one second after that. He accepted nothing from us but our best. Hewas truly ahead of his time.

Oscar Gill could see potential in all of us. “He dreamed bigger dreams forus than we dreamed for ourselves.” Here are things I learned from thisforceful and energetic man. They have stayed with me all of my life.

You weren’t around Mr. Gill long before you discovered what he alreadyknew—that knowledge is power. I still hear his deep voice saying, “Youngpeople, you have to learn to read more.” He also stressed the importanceof reading between the lines to discern fact from fiction.
Mr. Gill was a dark complexioned man. Perhaps, for that reason alone, hewas extremely proud of his identity. I remember him telling my 7th gradehistory class—whether you become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or atruck driver, society will always view you as a black doctor, a blacklawyer, a black engineer, and so on. “Young people, get used to thatidea,” he would say. “Be proud of who you are and don’t let othersdiscredit who you are.”

Because he was a realist, Mr. Gill tried to protect us from racism becausehe knew all about it. He knew that racism wasn’t going away in oursociety. He also knew there wasn’t a racist behind every bush or behindevery negative experience that we might encounter in life. He recognizedthat our country was founded on many of the principles of bigotry. But,every scholarship we didn’t get, and every inferior good or service thatwas rendered should not be instinctively ascribed to racism. He encouragedus to learn and to grow from every incident we experienced.

Finally, Mr. Gill insisted that we always carry ourselves with dignity andrespect. I actually remember him showing the boys in my class how toshake hands with someone. “Walk with you head up, render a firm handshake,and look anyone, White or Black, directly into their eyes when you speak tothem,” he would say. “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y” was the motto of Douglass High. Oscar Roger Gill was theembodiment of that maxim. I really miss him and the others who providedleadership at Douglass. Don’t you?

Donald Hickman