John Shearer: Remembering Graduation Day

Saturday, May 18, 2013 - by John Shearer

Have you ever wished for an opportunity to redo an aspect of your life, primarily because you did not do as well or accomplish as much the first time as you thought you could?

Ten years ago this month on a Sunday afternoon, I walked across the stage of McKenzie Arena at UTC and accepted my diploma after receiving a master’s degree in education.

I had gone back to school to get certified to teach in the public schools, but the course work also ended up re-certifying my confidence in being able to handle academic endeavors.

I had attended the University of Georgia 20 years earlier as an undergraduate and loved the social aspect of it after having been a shy student at all-boys Baylor School. I also enjoyed the experience of trying to play as a walk-on for the football team of a high-profile major college team for a couple of years.

But academically, I never pushed myself, nor did I ever feel inspired to learn, except perhaps by one history professor. My interest showed as well in my not-so-sterling 2.3 grade point average.

When I went back to UTC as a 41-year-old beginning in the spring semester of 2001, however, I was ready for the challenge of it, even though trying to outline all those facts for essay tests given by the fabulous history professor Dr. Jim Ward was not easy.

But I plugged away in his entertaining classes, just as I did in the history seminar class of Dr. Wilfred McClay and in all the graduate classes of the competent UTC education professors. The latter classes would last from 5 to 7:30 p.m. one night a week, and I have not forgotten the joy I felt after going home to eat supper after having made it through another night of them.

It was a tiring – and expensive – academic excursion, but I was enjoying it.

I had no great expectations when I started other than to try for a B average. A 3.0 GPA would have seemed so much better than the grades I made at Georgia and would have more than made up for my undergraduate blunders, when I sometimes made skipping class into an art form.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, I finished with a 4.0 average after my first semester. And the same happened in the summer terms, and in the fall.

I suddenly started feeling a little pressure to keep up the average my entire time at UTC. But it was a good and fun kind of pressure, like a baseball player trying to keep up some kind of streak or batting average.

The grades were obviously not due to any special gifts, but simply to my newspaper experience that helped train me to write papers in the education classes and to pay attention and take good notes in my history classes.

By the time I finished at UTC, I had somehow maintained a 4.0 average. And, in a move I would have never imagined at Georgia, I was even inducted into an honorary society for education students and received a special long robe adornment to wear at graduation.

Unfortunately, however, I probably would not have received perfect grades in classroom management during my training.

The student teaching went well for the most part when I taught geography at Red Bank High School for the first couple of months of my last semester. I did have two or three class clowns in one or two classes who were a little disruptive, but it went mostly well.

Teaching eighth-graders at Brown Middle School during the rest of the spring was much more challenging, however. “Why can’t all these brats behave?” I thought to myself on more than one frustrated occasion.

But all that was forgotten about when graduation came. It was a day to celebrate and enjoy all the hard work.

I had not even bothered to attend graduation at Georgia, primarily because I would have gone through the exercises a semester after I left, but I did not want to miss it for the world at UTC.

And then a week or so later, I went to the graduation exercises for my wife, Laura, from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She had felt a call to become a United Methodist pastor, so she was going to school the same time I was and had actually started before me.

I could quickly tell that Emory had an even more formal and serious graduation program than UTC did, but I loved it after being around college academia for the last 2½ years.

We ate lunch at a Panera restaurant near the campus afterward, and I remember thinking that I wanted to be around a college environment the rest of my life.

Instead, I was able to get a job at Bradley Central High School later that summer after principal Tom Losh kindly hired me. I loved aspects of being at Bradley and enjoyed some of the students. I particularly felt enriched knowing I was in an entirely different academic environment and culture from what I had experienced at Baylor.

But I had a few too many rowdy students there and at Karns High School in Knoxville, where I taught for one year. Due to a variety of factors, I ended up teaching public high school for only three years, just slightly longer than I was in school.

I have since gone back into journalism for the most part, while also getting to teach some adjunct journalism and English writing classes at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville off and on over the last five years. Teaching on the college level has been much more rewarding for me, and I have thoroughly enjoyed being in a stimulating college environment – as I desired while dining at that Panera in Atlanta long ago.

I did not go into a long career teaching in the public schools as I thought I might, but I am so glad I went back to school, a journey that concluded 10 years ago this month.

The experience enriched my life greatly, just as it probably has the numerous 2013 graduates of UTC and other area colleges.

And memories of it were certainly brought back on this 10thanniversary month.

My wife happened to mention a few days ago that a certain day was the 10th anniversary of her graduation. I, too, certainly remembered when my anniversary day of graduating – May 4 --passed.

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