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By NORA SWEAT
I knew when I was in fourth grade I wanted to be a teacher, and when I was a freshman in high school, after having Joan Thro’s home economics class, I knew wanted to be a home economics teacher. I never wavered from my goal.
My dad wanted me to go to work for a large company as a home economist, but teaching was what I was to do. I am a people person and wanted to work with high school students. When I retired in 2000, I loved teaching as much as I did in the fall of 1970.
My favorite part of teaching was the students.
They came from varied backgrounds, but when they walked in my classroom door, they were all equal. I have listened to their problems, laughed with them and sometimes cried with them. Many times students told me how much they appreciated me listening to them, because times at home were rough or parents were too busy carrying out family responsibilities.
I had students who had to prepare dinner for siblings and help with housework and homework, because they were in a single-parent family and/or Mom was working until late in the evening.
I never will forget one semester, when the foods class was preparing a class project, Thanksgiving dinner. Each of the five kitchen groups prepared enough for its class and five faculty guests — one per kitchen group. They worked diligently to prepare a turkey and dressing dinner with all the trimmings, and we ate at one long table — long enough for 30-plus people.
One girl whispered to me on the day of the dinner, “I’ve never had a Thanksgiving dinner.”
I don’t remember who she was, but I never will forget the fact that not every family can afford a turkey dinner or even to be together because of work obligations. Also, I gave computer generated birthday cards to students with a Happy Birthday pencil and many students would seem so moved, because it might have been the only birthday card they would receive.
The hardest part of my teaching career and in the nine years past retirement is losing students. From suicide, to a heart attack, to an accident with a drunken driver at the wheel, it is very hard to give up those so young.
I lost two very special young men from my life that both were in the West Hardin High School class of 1985. The first was a young man by the name of Billy Graas, who befriended a young man who had too much to drink at a field party. He offered to drive his friend wherever he wanted to go, but the friend refused and Billy went with him to try to protect him. The result was life changing
There was a wreck. Billy suffered severe head trauma and lived dependent on his parents and machines for 15 years before passing away.
Billy was such a personable, helpful young man. One time I was preparing for an adult class and setting up for a food demonstration for which I would be preparing several food items. Billy inquired how I was going to do that all by myself and offered to come back in the evening to help me, and he did. He was always the kind of young man that I would want my son to emulate. Not until he died did I know that at home he affectionately referred to me as “Nora, baby,” when he would tell his parents what he had learned in my class that day.
He was far too respectful to ever call me that in my presence.
The second student was Brad French, a classmate and close friend of Billy’s.
Brad passed away Sept. 21, after suffering a massive heart attack and living for 10 days in the coronary care unit at Hardin Memorial Hospital. Many of Billy’s and Brad’s friends lined the halls outside CCU providing support for Brad’s brothers and mom during that time.
Brad would light up the classroom when he walked in, joking and with a twinkle in his eye depicting maybe a slight strand of mischief. In particular — as Brad told it — there was a time when he said a bad word in class. Because there was paint where the living room in the home economics department was going to be painted, I assigned him to do the painting. I know he and friend, a Don Howard, painted the living room during their free period, but I don’t remember him uttering the bad word.
What I do remember is while having a preschool experience during his child development class, small children had to be lifted to the water fountain for a drink. After a couple of days of lifting them to the fountain, Brad offered, “Do you want me to make you some steps?” And he did. Recently when I visited him in CCU as he lay there with little brain activity, I walked into the room and said something to him joking. He smiled. That happened three times. Reflexes you might say; but I firmly believe he knew I was there and was remembering the times in my classroom.
Even the visitation for Brad at Brown’s Funeral Home was astounding as 1,500 people filed past his casket. Many high school friends were there as well as folks he worked with as an Akebono contractor for the past 20 years. I was privileged to see many former students, and we shared stories of the good times in high school.
Billy and Brad are just two of the fine students I had while teaching at West Hardin and Central Hardin High Schools. The fact that I have almost 1,600 friends on Facebook is indicative of the many students I had in that 30-year period — 90 percent of them are former students.
Teachers’ salaries are not very high in Kentucky or even in the United States. However, I have always said the fringe benefits are astounding. My former students are everywhere in the business community and they are always there to step up and help my husband, Mike, and me.
I will be the first to admit that teaching today is not the same as it was when I started teaching —many more demands. But the one factor that you must have is the love and concern for our children who will become tomorrow’s leaders. Many teachers make a lasting impression on these students as they travel through their education, and they will never forget you for being there for them. Consider it.
Nora's Note: “One of Hardin County’s Finest Cooks” will appear next week
Nora Sweat is a native of Hardin County and a retired home economics/family and consumer science teacher. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at 408 W. Dixie Ave., Elizabethtown, KY 42701.