Every fall when I head back to school, I think about how it is the first day for some new teacher. That’s not surprising. Even though I’ve taught for 35 years, that first day always makes me feel like a novice. I’m a little nervous, a little clueless, just as if I had never stepped into a classroom.
This year I’ll also be thinking about Saxby Chaplin.
Unlike most of those nervous new teachers, this isn’t Saxby’s first career. For 35 years he has been practicing law in the Charlotte area.
Forget retirement - a new start
At the age when most people are planning to retire soon, Saxby is beginning a new career as an English instructor at Central Piedmont Community College. This August he will meet two different composition classes, handing out the syllabus he is busy creating now and hoping to engage his students in such a way that they leave his class able to write and think clearly.
His surprising journey started his senior year at Myers Park High School. That year was an embarrassment of riches, with gifted, inspirational teachers. His world literature teacher quietly prompted the class to think about and discuss the issues imbedded in the stories they read. His physics teacher made the marriage of science and math so much fun that Saxby majored in engineering at Georgia Tech.
But it was his English literature teacher, Evelyn Baker, who gave him the love of reading and writing that he hopes to pass on to his own students.
Ms. Baker was the kind of teacher who not only loved what she taught but who made her students love it, too. In class she was vivacious and incandescent, setting the bar high for her students who eagerly met the challenge. Even now Saxby remembers the opening lines to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and can recite them – in Middle English – because Ms. Baker made memorizing them fun and worthwhile.
Love of English tugged at him
Saxby isn’t sure why he didn’t pursue his love of English as a career at first. Like many of us, he found other options more pressing: college was followed by a stint in the Navy on a submarine, then law school beckoned, after which a legal career and family became his priorities. Although he reinvented himself as a conservationist by working the past 12 years with a nonprofit land conservation organization, his love of English instilled in high school continued to tug at his conscience.
Four years ago he started a Master’s degree at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, and last year he taught a section of freshman composition. The class was small – 10 students – and he worked long hours giving copious feedback to them all about their compositions – but he was hooked. This was what he wanted to do.
Fortunately he now works part-time at a large law firm that will allow him to also fulfill his dream as an English teacher when school starts back this fall. That’s why he and I met recently to talk shop about school.
Despite his lifetime of experiences and varied skill sets, Saxby’s humility has led him to reach out to veteran teachers for suggestions. I wasn’t much help. My experience teaching at the college level is limited to the single class of remedial English I taught one semester at a community college, but I do have some terrific colleagues who are happy to share what they know with him. By the time he meets his students in a month, I know he will be ready.
Ms. Baker still there for him
It’s not like he will be alone, either.
After all these years, the memory of Evelyn Baker’s infectious smile and joy of learning that she exuded are still fresh in his mind and heart, and he’ll carry the commitment she gave him into his classroom. He attributes his lifelong love of learning and his ability to pursue a rewarding and varied career path in large measure to Ms. Baker’s enthusiasm and her palpable conviction that her students could master difficult material no matter when it was written. They could learn from classical literature and hone their critical thinking skills through their rigorous engagement with it.
Saxby’s life is a testament to the faith Ms. Baker had in her students – and her ability to motivate them to be the best students they could be.
Now she’ll help him be the best teacher he can be – still living up to her model, hoping to inspire young people the way she did him – the finest legacy any teacher could ever hope for.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of “Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching.” Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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