Two teachers' lessons in class became lessons for life for me

May 02, 2004|by JOHN LEAGUE

On the evening of April 22, the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce held its annual Educator of the Year banquet.

The entire evening was devoted to a celebration of excellence in both public and private schools, and at Hagerstown Community College, Frostburg State University and Hagerstown Business College. It's inspiring to be around educators who love what they do.

While listening to the educators speak of their experiences, their dedication to their students and the students whose lives they have touched, I drove home thinking of the teachers who had an impact on my life, and the reasons for it.

There are many, but without doubt, no educator influenced my life to the degree that Mary T. Doakes did.

I went to public schools in the 1960s and early '70s in Jefferson County, W.Va. Schools didn't integrate in Jefferson County 'til I was in the sixth grade. And when they did, I can remember that the parents talked about it much more than the kids did. Suffice it to say that many parents were not in love with the idea of integrated schools.


I was placed into a sixth-grade class whose two primary teachers were black. Mrs. Doakes had returned in late fall after a several-month maternity leave, and she wasn't in the room for more than five minutes when a classmate challenged her, using a racial slur to say he wasn't taking orders from a black woman.

Mrs. Doakes confronted the problem head-on, leaving no doubt that she was running the classroom. She also left no doubt that racial slurs would not be uttered again in her presence. And, with that, began the most fascinating year I've ever had in a classroom.

Mrs. Doakes was an excellent teacher, particularly in history. She used heavy doses of humor and class participation to bring students out of their shells. Her classes were fun. I was painfully introverted 'til I spent my year with Mrs. Doakes. More important, it was the first step for many of us white kids to begin the process of learning that, after you get beyond skin color, we're all essentially the same.

I hated to hear the final bell ring each day in Mrs. Doakes' class, just like you hate to see a good book or good movie come to an end. And I did not want that special school year to end when it did. I wanted to soak it all up just a little while longer.

Equal parts teacher, entertainer and philosopher. That was Mary T. Doakes. I loved her then, and I appreciate her immense talent and courage even more today.

In college, I had a professor who had a similar impact, but his style was a polar opposite. His name was Dr. Robert DiClerico, and he taught political science courses at West Virginia University.

Dr. DiClerico taught his class using a form of the Socratic method. He asked questions; he did not provide answers. Each class was a lively debate about government, politics, politicians, theories and principles.

The more ingrained your views might be on an issue, the more he challenged them. Whether from the left or the right politically, you were forced to stake your claim and support it.

Until DiClerico's class, I approached academics and college courses as nothing more than hurdles that needed to be cleared in order to reach the end of the race. After my first semester in his classroom, I began to enjoy the sheer fun and challenge of learning.

To this day, I don't know if DiClerico was a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. I do know he was a brilliant college professor, so comfortable in the classroom, and careful and exacting in his cultivation of young minds.

Looking back, it was a great gift to be taught by these two splendid educators.

How lucky I was that our paths crossed.

John League is editor and publisher of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7073, or by e-mail at

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