By the time I arrived in his eighth grade classroom, Mr. Jones was already a legend at North Reading Middle School. In addition to teaching American history, he was also the school’s vice principal, and enforced discipline among students in a way that often made him seem more like a drill sergeant than a teacher. He was feared but also deeply respected, and you wanted to work hard to impress him every day.
We were issued a standard variety textbook, but that was just a starting point. Even though it was a U.S. history class, we were expected to read the newspaper and be prepared to discuss current events each morning. Mr. Jones didn’t just want us to know the dates and battles of the Civil War, he asked us to memorize each word of the Gettysburg Address, so that we could understand the power of presidential speech. And then he took us on a camping trip to Gettysburg, so that we could appreciate the sacrifices made for the sake of our union.
Over the course of my year with Mr. Jones, American history was brought to life with creative projects, mock trials, and debates about political issues that were still in the headlines. There was an infamous test that involved us knowing every amendment and provision in the U.S. Constitution. And the culmination of the entire class was another camping trip, this time across the country.
For the entire month of June, Mr. Jones took thirty-three eighth graders, fifteen chaperones, three vans, and a big yellow Ryder truck from Massachusetts to Nevada and back. We saw Rushmore and Yellowstone, the Tetons and the Grand Canyon, Crazy Horse and the Four Corners. Even though class was over, we were quizzed at each stop about history and geography, and assigned journal entries to chronicle the adventure. It was the first time I really started to enjoy writing.
Mr. Jones’s history class was also when I first became interested in public service – not just because he had us sit at a desk and read a textbook, but because he took the time to teach us and show us that history doesn’t just happen, it is created and shaped by each generation of Americans. Above all, he reminded us that we had an opportunity and an obligation to write our own chapter in that story.
Charlie Jones asked a lot of us, but he gave us a lot more in return. And I know that I wouldn’t be in this job had I not walked into his classroom. For that, I am forever grateful.