The Old Paths: Shepherding souls

By Leslie Bray Brewer - Special to The Stokes News

’Tis the season again—no, not for jolly old St. Nicholas, but for “school days, school days, dear old Golden Rule days.” Y’all remember that old song? For some reason I do, although I was not alive in 1907 when it was written.

Some parts of that song have remained the same, such as the “reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.” Conversely, its next line shows us how much things have changed: “Taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick.” I assume no modern schoolchild is corrected with a switch. Corporal punishment has gone the route of the passenger pigeon.

The rest of the song is also definitely dated: “You were my queen in calico, I was your bashful, barefoot beau, And you wrote on my slate, ‘I Love You, Joe,’ When we were a couple o’ kids.”

“Calico” is simply printed cotton cloth, but I doubt Target markets their flowered cotton shirts as calico for stylish schoolgirls. And I reckon the little boys are wearing shoes—no bare feet nowadays. (What would “Little House on the Prairie” kids have thought about $200 sneakers?)

Like the little girl in the song who loved Joe, a lot of us probably wrote love letters when we were schoolkids, but I for one used lined notebook paper—not a slate. However, buying school supplies would have been simpler on those old paths. Get your slate and pencil down at the local mercantile, and you’re done… poring through sales flyers for the best deal on composition books (do they still call them that?), no choosing between wide-ruled or college-ruled notebook paper, no searching for a book bag with the right design, etc.

Yes, a lot has changed since “School Days” was written. Even the Golden Rule might not be as much in fashion as it was back then. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has turned into “Give ‘em right back what they gave you.”

But one thing that hasn’t changed from 1907 to 2018 is caring teachers. For the most part, there have always been teachers who sacrifice themselves to bless the children placed under their care.

When I taught high school English, I did see a few teachers who sat in the teachers’ lounge making derogatory remarks about their students—trapped educators dreaming of the day they could retire. I wondered why these coworkers of mine had chosen a career working with children, whom, by all

appearances, they seemed to despise. However, these types of teachers were the exception rather than the rule.

A few weekends ago, I attended the “Celebrating Courage” events as part of The Lilies Project. The focus of this celebration was my principal from London Grammar School—the late Mr. John L. Hairston. His wife, Ruth, was my fifth-grade teacher. The weekend was full of fond remembrances of these fine educators.

During the opening program held in the London Elementary School cafeteria on Sat., Aug. 11, a time was set aside for us to call out the names of teachers who had positively affected us. I was calling out names like Ron Jessup, Willa Lash, Glenna Hicks, Mary Foy, Jane Williams and others.

As we did this, I realized that most of these names came from our years at London. My former P.E. teacher, Jane Williams, was actually with us that afternoon, and as she reminisced about being hired by Mr. John L. Hairston, I suddenly understood why these educators stuck out to us.

Jane told how thrilled she was to realize that in those early days of integration, she was among educators at London who were excited to teach, full of progressive ideas, determined to make a difference. Thinking back, I knew she was right; I could vividly recall the sense of purpose and optimism we had at London Grammar with the aforementioned teachers, plus Ms. Lowery, Janice Snow, Wanda Whitaker, Arnold Davis, Virginia Hairston and many more.

Maybe we knew we HAD to have this positive spirit in order for us to succeed, due to the fact that these were history-making days in Stokes County, with students and teachers from formerly segregated schools now in multiracial settings. Whatever the reason for the sense of excitement and purpose we felt back then, we had the right man at the helm of London Grammar School. I knew that about Mr. John L. Hairston all along, but my sense of his legacy was strengthened when I heard my friend, Brad Dunlap, testify about our former principal at the closing ceremony of “Celebrating Courage” on Sun., Aug. 12. Brad recalled how he had argued with his teacher at London—resulting in the 11-year-old boy walking out of the classroom and up the road toward Main Street.

Before he got very far, Brad heard a car creep up slowly behind him. He turned to see our principal at the wheel. Mr. Hairston patiently asked the young boy to get into the backseat. Brad obeyed.

However, when Mr. Hairston asked him to apologize to the teacher, the answer was no. Rather than yell at Brad or threaten punishment, our wise principal kindly but firmly used his genius to persuade the boy to say he was sorry and reenter the classroom with no other consequences. Mr. Hairston knew that Brad’s humbling of himself was punishment enough.

When Brad finished his heartfelt testimony, my son Elijah whispered to me, “He left the ninety and nine to go after the one.” Cold chills ran all over me as I recognized the Biblical analogy of the Good Shepherd leaving the whole flock to pursue one little lost sheep.

Elijah, born two years after Mr. Hairston’s 1993 passing, had hit the nail on the head. Mr. Hairston modeled the loving character of Jesus more than nearly anybody I’ve ever known. He wasn’t in it for fame or glory; he could’ve secured that more easily had he taken the lucrative engineering jobs offered to him in the Northeast where prejudice didn’t rear its ugly head quite as often as it did down in Walnut Cove.

Instead, this soft-spoken man chose to stay here and make a difference. He shepherded us with wisdom, patience, courage and love. His wife Ruth did the same in her classroom. I pray we see that same spirit of lovingkindness, compassion and integrity in Stokes County Schools this very school year. We as teachers are not just filling little human buckets with knowledge or controlling physical beings for several hours each day. We have been chosen to shepherd the very souls (mind, will, emotions) of those who are our future. What a monumental and honorable task!

Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at Her blog is at

By Leslie Bray Brewer

Special to The Stokes News