John Shearer: Bright School Celebrates 100 Years, Part 1

  • Wednesday, April 17, 2013
  • John Shearer

As my elementary school alma mater, Bright School, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, I thought it might be fun to try to track down and interview some of my former teachers, even though I have not had contact with most of them in years.

Part of the reason is simply that my days at Bright School were among the happiest of my life.

Besides the basic classroom time, I loved playing various school-related sports as well as socializing with all my classmates and other friends. And those delicious lunches prepared by Marguerite McCormick and her staff were not too bad, either!

Life was almost perfect – and then I had to grow up and face the real world!

Knowing that my teachers contributed greatly to all that enjoyment, I looked forward to trying to locate some of them. But because I graduated from the sixth grade in 1972 – more than four decades ago – I was not sure how many former core classroom instructors could still be reached.

However, apparently all but one – Winifred Clark, my beloved fourth-grade teacher, who was nearing the end of a long teaching career when I had her – are still living.  

Unfortunately, though, I was unable to interview all of them after either calling or writing them with the aid of some contact information passed along by Suzanne Winchester at Bright. I did not reach my kindergarten teacher Charlotte Mason, who likely holds some kind of modern longevity record at Bright and with whom I have conversed and corresponded some over the years. I also could not reach my second grade teacher, Betty Cothran. 

I did talk briefly over the phone with Laura Englerth, my fifth-grade teacher, who served as a faculty member at Bright until retiring as the computer teacher in 1997. Although I was unable to connect with her in subsequent attempts, my brief conversation made me realize I still remembered her and all my teachers’ distinctive voices. 

I also enjoyed a delightful interview with my first-grade teacher, Adele Baker, for a story I wrote in early 2012, so I did not try to contact her this time.

Among the others, I would have loved to locate my former physical education/gym teacher Bill Wolcott, but I am not sure where he would be living now.

Unfortunately, the popular and even-tempered shop/manual training teacher Aaron Lowe is deceased, as is girls PE teacher Martha Bass, who in many ways was a pioneer professional woman due to her leadership in sports coaching, including swimming.

Music teacher Mrs. Oscar Miller also died shortly after her husband’s passing while we were still in school.

Among the other staff members who were a big part of those years at Bright were the late Ann Zahnd Moon, as well as Martha Becton, a key school administrator who went on to become perhaps the school’s first official librarian. I understand Ms. Becton is still in Chattanooga.

I look forward to seeing possibly some of these other faculty members and fellow students when Bright School holds its centennial alumni picnic on the evening of May 10 at the school.

But for now, here are the memories from two of my former teachers.

Interviews with my sixth-grade teacher, Janet Reeve, and Elizabeth Batchelor, the daughter of art teacher Elizabeth Jackson and niece of my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Clark, will come in another article in the near future.

Dorothy Stewart, kindergarten – Because she might now be one of the most senior former teachers I had, I was overjoyed when I came home one night recently and my wife, Laura, told me that Mrs. Stewart had called after getting my letter.

And when I connected with her from her residence in Massachusetts the next day, my heart was warmed when I heard her friendly voice and realized how sharp her mind still is.

As I mentioned, I also had Mrs. Mason for kindergarten. However, because I was younger than probably all of my classmates, a decision was made – apparently without my consultation -- to let me repeat kindergarten. So I actually spent eight years at Bright.

If I am correct, Mrs. Mason’s kindergarten classroom was the one on the left as one came down from the office area, while Mrs. Stewart’s was on the right.

Mrs. Stewart said she had come to Bright the same year I started kindergarten the second time. She had replaced on a temporary basis Shirley Hodge, who was taking maternity leave.

Mrs. Stewart’s late husband, James Stewart, was an air traffic controller and was regularly transferred, and they had come to Chattanooga from Beaufort, S.C. She had also grown up in Durant, Okla., where my great-uncle, Allen Shearer, became a college president at what is now Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

She knew and liked him, and I think that no doubt helped me get off to a great start in her class. She also went to my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, for eyeglasses, and was in the American Association of University Women with my late mother, Velma Shearer.

Actually, being in AAUW helped Mrs. Stewart get on at Bright after sending an application letter, as the late former headmistress, Dr. Mary Dalton Davis, was also in AAUW. “That appealed to her,” Mrs. Stewart recalled. “She liked people from AAUW.”

Mrs. Stewart said Bright was her favorite teaching stop in a rewarding career that also included working at schools in New Orleans, Texas and Oklahoma, where one of her students was Mark Hayes, who went on to become a well-known pro golfer in the 1970s.

“I loved my work and teaching at Bright,” she said, adding that she tried to help each child according to his or her individual strengths and needs. “It was just so rewarding in many ways. I wouldn’t take anything for that experience.”

She also noticed some differences between Bright and her previous experience teaching at public elementary schools.

“The big difference in these children and public school children were that the parents were ambitious for their children and wanted them to have the best in education,” she said.

A talented piano player who still plays, Mrs. Stewart said she often used the instrument as a fun prop for classroom teaching or simply as a way of offering a break for the students. She also occasionally played for entire school gatherings, she remembered.

She also vividly recalled that students enjoyed singing the Bright School song, which she said a former teacher (Mrs. Joe Johnson) had written using Johannes Brahm’s “First Symphony.”

According to Mrs. Stewart and the Bright School web site, the words are: “We sing our proud song, a song of loving praise, to our Bright School and to the golden days. In our hearts, in our minds, and living, too; Bright School, may we be your source of pride in all the coming years.”

Regarding her memories of me, I was flattered that she had any at all. But she recalled that I had a part as a flag waver and announcer during the class play. She also remembered – correctly – that I was a shy and quiet student. As an example, she recounted with a small laugh that I was too shy to dance with a girl during a minuet, and she had to nudge me gently.

After that one year, Mrs. Hodge returned and Mrs. Stewart was offered second grade. But Charlotte Mason said she was interested in teaching second grade, so Mrs. Stewart was able to continue with kindergarten.

Mrs. Stewart said she ended up retiring in 1972. The plan was that she and her retired husband were going to travel a lot, but most of his traveling ended up being around a local golf course, she remembered with a laugh.

But she continued to try to be a positive contributor to the world through her involvement with a number of other clubs and organizations, including the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Philanthropic and Educational Organization for Women, and her church, Tyner United Methodist.

Although very happy in retirement in Chattanooga, she moved to Massachusetts to be closer to the family of her son, Jim Stewart, about five years ago.

When I did a follow-up call with her this week, she said she had reconnected recently over the telephone with fellow former Bright teacher and traveling companion Grace Robinson, who now lives in Greeneville, Tenn.

She also said she was on her way with a group to a concert in Boston Monday when they heard the devastating news about the Boston Marathon bombing and had to go back home.

She has acclimated well to Massachusetts, but a conversation with her reveals she still feels very close to Bright School, despite the distance in miles and years.

“The atmosphere had lots of happy learning,” she said with obvious emotion.

Peggy Wright, third grade – When I sent a letter to some of my teachers explaining that I was hoping to interview them about their memories of teaching at Bright and their overall careers, Mrs. Wright was the only one who called me the first day she received my note.

As with Mrs. Stewart, I happened to have Mrs. Wright for class during her first year at Bright, which was the 1968-69 school year.

But while Mrs. Stewart was able to get a job due in part to her and Dr. Davis’ shared membership in AAUW, Mrs. Wright evidently was hired because my first-grade teacher, Adele Baker, knew Mrs. Wright and realized that longtime third-grade teacher Ms. Lauderdale was retiring.

As a result, Miss Baker contacted Mrs. Wright, who interviewed for the job and was hired.

“That was the way you got positions at Bright in those days,” she said. “You had to be special and know somebody at the time.”

The current stereotypical image of a headmaster or principal sitting down with a committee of two or three other teachers and administrators and hiring someone strictly on their qualifications, interview presence or potential apparently did not exist much at Bright in those days. As the old saying went, it was whom you knew.

Mrs. Wright said she taught at Woodmore Elementary, but had taken off a few years to have two sons, Jack and Stephen, who went on to attend Bright and McCallie School. Today, Jack is a doctor in San Antonio, while Stephen works in real estate in Washington, D.C.

One incident that happened during her class was that we learned Richard Nixon had been elected president in 1968 after the race was finally decided during school-time hours.

What I remember most about Mrs. Wright individually, though, is that she was a gifted violin player.

“I played in the symphony in high school and all through my college years,” she said. “I majored in violin. I played in the symphony for years, but wasn’t playing much at Bright.”

A former salutatorian at Central High School in Chattanooga when it was on Dodds Avenue, she went on to teach a string program in Dalton not long after finishing at the University of Chattanooga.

She said she left Bright in the mid-1970s and, by that time, had become interested in reading education. This included becoming involved with a summer reading program at McCallie, and teaching reading at East Lake Elementary after receiving a reading degree.

While teaching students the joys of letting their eyes travel across the pages, she and her husband soon found pleasure in traveling around the world.

“I’ve traveled a lot,” she said. “I have been to Europe and Asia and visited all the continents except South America.”

Unfortunately, she has been beset with Parkinson’s Disease in recent years, she said. That has greatly limited her ability to play the violin, so she has decided to try to sell a nice violin she owns.

But she is not about to let go of her cherished memories of teaching at Bright School.

“I enjoyed being at Bright,” she said. “It was a really a good time.”

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