Gift has knack for instruction

March 03, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

SMITHSBURG - While Ed Gift may call himself a frustrated stand-up comedian, without a piece of chalk and a captive young audience, the career teacher would have little to be serious about.

For 33 years, the history and psychology teacher has been getting the laughs and attention of Smithsburg High School students by catching them off guard and then testing them.

Gift will scribble misspelled city names on the chalkboard, blow chalk dust to mock the Dust Bowl windstorm of the 1930s and concoct Depression-era tomato soup - made of ketchup and hot water - to imitate life in dire straits, all to make a lasting impression on his students.


Teaching for 12 years at a prison gave Gift an education on educating. It was an eerie feeling for him to leave behind his chain-smoking students within the prison's gates, but he said those same students were always upbeat and took their classes seriously, which to him was a breath of fresh air.

"For being in jail, they had a good sense of humor," he said.

Although Gift doesn't leave Smithsburg High smelling of cigarettes, he does carry his work home with him in a different sense.

Jogging not only keeps Gift, 55, fit, but keeps his mind jogged for ideas on how and what to teach. He runs 1,600 to 1,700 miles a year.

Ripping through newspapers and magazines also gives the comic teacher material for the classroom.

Gift's history students created a compressed time capsule, which he sealed off around Valentine's Day, that contains a polling of student opinions on the United States and its handling of Iraq. The capsule will be opened at the end of the school year.

"You have to have some sense of where you are in time," he said.

Gift tries to keep in step with his young students, too. As he introduces them to songs to which he once danced and listened, the high school students also share their favorite tunes with him.

"I'm fascinated with the lingo," he said. "Like fat spelled with a 'ph.'"

He said his daughter, Meredith, 18, also helps keep him hip to the minds and lives of the millennium teenager.

"I know I'm 55, but I don't feel like I'm 55," he said.

He said he knew he wanted to teach history since seventh grade, after falling in love with the subject. Physics, algebra II and Spanish teachers proved to be a great influence upon Gift's teaching style, he said. His Spanish teacher often would quiz students daily to ensure they understood the material and Gift said he tests his students the same way when he feels they aren't getting it.

For more than a decade, Gift has been working the summer months teaching students to help them pass The Citizenship Test, which he said often is a grueling task for his pupils.

"I would get those kids to pass that test," he said.

Gift passed his own test of education by completing his undergraduate degree at Towson University and his graduate degree at Shippensburg (Pa.) University, which has allowed him to expand his teachings part time at Hagerstown Community College, a job he's held for 29 years.

Watching his students make the transition from getting "C's" in high school to "A's" at the community college makes teaching worthwhile, he said.

Spanning a career teaching Smithsburg and HCC students for more than three decades, Gift has taught "lots and lots of people."

He said sometimes he even runs into them while he's out jogging.

Once a student held up traffic to let him pass through, he remembered.

"I like to see my students become successful," he said.

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