In my first blog post of this year, I alluded to 2018 being challenging. One reason was the sudden loss of my friend, mentor, and second father, Vernon Turner. I’m so glad that I got to visit with him this past summer for what I didn’t know would be the last time.
We shared breakfast at a diner in Baltimore. Over syrupy plates, we talked…though I should say I mostly listened. That was Vernon for you, always a story, accompanied by grins and chuckles. It was fitting that someone so passionate about history would be so dedicated to stories and their telling.
Vernon was many things, but above all, he was a teacher, passionate about education, his students, and his community. The legacy he left behind was real and true, on everyone he met, including me. After his passing, I shared the following on Facebook and at his memorial service but I wanted to honor him by including him here on my blog, one facet of which focuses on teaching and learning.
What a Teacher Leaves Behind
I am so grateful to have had an extraordinary man as my mentor, second father, and friend for 20 years. His name was Vernon Turner and he was a teacher with a big heart that he dedicated to his community.
20 years ago, I was a 21 year old kid, going on job interviews fresh out of college. I graduated in the middle of the school year and would be starting my teaching career in January, not enviable timing to say the least. I went on 10 job interviews all over Baltimore but I knew I would pick Dundalk Middle School.
Why? Because after my interview in the office was over, I was told I couldn’t use the front doors after hours and instead went down a long hall where a very tall, older man with a kind face sat. He introduced himself as Vernon Turner, Social Studies teacher and Team Leader. Over the next hour or so that we talked, I learned all about the school, its students, and the community. I learned that the English teacher had quit after missing lots of time due to health issues. I learned that the long term subs refused to come back cause the kids were a handful. I learned about these rowdy seventh grade kids full of promise who wanted a “real teacher”. And, eventually, and most importantly, I learned that Vernon was someone who kept his word. He promised me if I took that job, that he’d look out for me, support me, and mentor me. There was something about Vernon that radiated warmth and authenticity and though I didn’t know him, I knew I could trust him. I took the job.
Over the years we taught middle school together, I witnessed Vernon’s dedication to Dundalk and the community of Turners Station. I saw him teach multiple generations of students and go knock the doors of struggling students’ homes to talk to their families. He helped kids who needed support and encouragement. He listened to parents. He showed up to sports events. And he taught from the heart. In teaching observations, he didn’t always have his objectives posted on the board as required but his students always knew something far more important: that he cared. Students who led chaotic or indifferent home lives could come to Mr. Turner’s classroom and find order and structure. He pushed back against the rising culture of standardized testing and education being managed like a factory line. No matter what, Vernon believed that education should be empowering and fun and he wasn’t afraid to voice his belief to anyone. Though officially retired, he never did really leave the classroom until now.
So, what does a teacher leave behind? If you’re one of the best, like Vernon Turner was, you leave behind all the things that matter most. He taught for most of his life, touching countless lives of students, fellow faculty and staff, and community members. He truly dedicated himself to education and his legacy cannot be diminished: his memory, his knowledge, and his example live on. He will live on in his former students who are empowered by education and the opportunities it brings, his former colleagues who refuse to reduce teaching to a commodity, and his community that respects the past but looks toward a bright future. What a wonderful place our world would be if more people would choose to dedicate themselves to helping others like Vernon did.
When I heard of Vernon’s passing, I just wanted to lay down and cry. The thought of a world without his boisterous laughter and down to earth sensibility just seemed too cold and too cruel. But on the first day without a Vernon Turner I was in front of my class, doing my best to teach my students to be empowered by their education and to rise to meet their challenges. I think that was a fitting tribute and thanks to him and all he did and was. So, that is what a true teacher leaves behind: inspiration, dedication, and their infinite, eternal heart.
I’ll always love you, Dad. Your daughter, Christine
Thank you for reading my tribute to Vernon. Is there a special teacher who made a positive impact you’ll never forget? Please share in the comments.
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