Redefining service

One night a few weeks ago, I drove down Interstate 26 heading toward Columbia, S.C. It was eerie, as I hadn’t made this trip at night in 15 years, since I was a nervous 30-year-old about to enter a world that I’d once vowed never to venture into. This time, however, I was traveling to Fort Jackson not as a new military recruit but as a recruiter for the Asheville City Schools.

In the fall of 1992, I was filled with mixed emotions as I prepared to leave my wife and sons to begin serving this country. Mom had previously encouraged me to try the military, which had enabled her to see various parts of the world during her own time of service, but I had chosen to leave home and go to college instead.

I was in the service from November 1992 until April 2000, and I did a lot of learning and growing during that time, maturing in ways that I wouldn’t have thought possible. Although military life was a culture shock, I soon realized that others had followed this path before me, so it wouldn’t mean I had to give up being me. Raising two sons alone, I learned to be self-sufficient. And while serving a purpose, I also had fun.

After leaving the Army, I wanted a new career where I could make a positive difference. I watched my sons grow and have some difficulties in school. My younger son entered the AVID program, and I saw that there were specific methods that could help steer a student toward college.

Dad died in 2002, and I traveled to Asheville to address his final wishes. I’d planned to start teaching in Texas, but after Dad’s death, I decided to try teaching here in Asheville. That shift sparked a series of events that resulted in my traveling to Columbia and Fort Jackson again.

Since I began teaching here, I’ve noted a lot of change: in the city, the children and education as a whole. The idea that people don’t learn at the same rate and in the same way took some getting used to. I also found that I needed to speak up about issues that affect Asheville’s children. To help them directly, I volunteered my time with Partners Unlimited; I also volunteered to help recruit qualified people to teach here. What better place to look than on a military installation, where I was familiar with the customs and traditions?

While sitting in my former chaplain’s office, I had an epiphany. I have a new mission now: My school is my forward operating base, and my classroom is my battlefield. My new orders are to use all necessary means to combat illiteracy and help students get a fighting chance in today’s world.

It’s a daily battle against against apathy and mistrust. “That is boring.” “You can’t make me write that.” “I don’t understand, so I’m not doing it.” So many children don’t know they have the potential to be great, and those who do know won’t strive to achieve their greatness. Every day I try to show a child that knowing how to speak well doesn’t make you a nerd; knowing how to find the area of a rectangle doesn’t mean you lose your cool points. And just because you love to read, it doesn’t mean you won’t get picked in the next game of hoops.

Spending time at Fort Jackson, I concluded that the military doesn’t need me half as much as the children of Asheville do. Though I thought about getting “back into the game,” I now know that I’ve been called to give back to the community that raised me by teaching here. To refresh my spirit, I revisited my personal “teachers’ creed,” which is based on the Noncommissioned Officers’ Creed:

No one is more professional than I. I am an educator, a leader of students. As an educator, I realize that I am a member of a time-honored profession. I am proud of the profession of educators and will at all times conduct myself so as to bring credit upon my fellow educators, the school and my district, regardless of the situation in which I find myself.

Competence is my watchword. My two basic responsibilities will always be uppermost in my mind—accomplishing my teaching goals and promoting my students’ mental welfare. I will strive to remain proficient in my teaching duties by staying abreast of learning innovations. I am aware of my role as an educator, and I will fulfill the responsibilities inherent in that role.

All students are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my students, and I will always place their needs above my own when they are in my classroom. I will communicate consistently with my students and never leave them guessing as to what we need to accomplish. I will be fair and impartial when recommending both rewards and punishment.

I will earn the respect and confidence of those whom I work with, including my students. I will be loyal to those with whom I teach: seniors, peers and students. I will exercise initiative by taking appropriate action in the absence of direction. I will not compromise my integrity or my moral courage.

I will not forget, nor will I allow my fellow teachers to forget, that we are professionals, educators, leaders!

[Asheville native Cedric Austin Nash teaches seventh- and eighth-grade language arts and social studies at Randolph Learning Center.]

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