Our panel of judges received so many amazing entries this year, competition was fierce, and the selection process was quite challenging. It’s heartwarming to see how many people wrote in, telling us stories of teachers who made a decisive impact in their lives.
After much deliberation, our panel chose the stories they deemed most moving.
The winners of the 2020 Dewey Awards are:
Sarah Ward – honoring Mr. Heroux
Dr. Cecil W. Payton – a tribute to Mrs. Katie Pugh Smith
Dr. Mechelle Newell – Mr. Porter, the most special teacher (video)
The authors of these stories will be awarded a $1,000 charter school grant each, to go to the charter school of their choice.
We’re featuring all three stories below. In upcoming weeks, we’ll be posting many other stories sent to us during this contest. Stay tuned!
Story by Sarah Ward
My sophomore year was the first year that I participated with my school orchestra in the annual MPA, music performance assessment, held by our district. The orchestra had been steadily rehearsing and perfecting our repertoire for weeks under the direction of our conductor, Mr. Heroux. Our small charter school orchestra was quite the underdog group, having never received straight superiors, the highest score from all of the judges, at one of these events. This year, however, was different: we were thoroughly prepared and determined to impress our talent upon the judges.
When the day arrived, every student was a bundle of nerves and excitement. Mr. Heroux consistently fed us words of encouragement throughout the day, keeping us focused on the task ahead. The performance came and went, and the stress of our scores was pressing upon us. We knew we had given a spectacular performance by the look on Mr. Heroux’s face after we walked off the stage. Performance scores were given to the directors to share with us, so the anxiety of our small ensemble was palpable in the band room the next morning.
“First of all,” I recall Mr. Heroux saying, “you all did an incredible job yesterday.” From his tone of voice, I could tell that something was amiss. I looked up and saw tears glistening in his eyes as his voice cracked. At that moment, everyone could tell that he had bitter news to share with us. Then he told us: we did not get straight superiors. He went through each of the judges’ score sheets. Two out of the three judges had given us superior ratings, but one judge only gave us an excellent, the rating below superior.
To make matters worse, Mr. Heroux told us that he had examined the point brackets, and he sadly reported that the excellent was one singular point away from a superior. I was shocked, heartbroken, and angry. We had failed to achieve the top score by one point. I looked around the room and could see other members of the orchestra equally affected by the news, especially the seniors who had worked four years for this moment.
Even when he thought that there was nothing he could say to make us feel better, Mr. Heroux demonstrated his care for us that day. He recalled us how we had worked incredibly hard and had done so well on stage the previous day. Even though we were nervous, we did not let our nerves get the best of us. When we made a mistake, we kept going. He reminded us that we had played our hearts out on that stage, and regardless of the score, we stood out as one of the most united ensembles at the event. He told us that he knew we were disappointed, and he was not going to lie to us. He was disappointed as well, but he was also proud.
Through his tears, he told us just how proud he was of our accomplishments. As an ensemble, we had been through a lot that year, but we never failed to pull through and make him proud. He helped us see that this instance was no exception. He was so incredibly proud that we were able to work together and produce beautiful music, regardless of the scores we received. One by one, many of the members of the orchestra vocally expressed their agreement with Mr. Heroux. I remember a specific instance when the principal violist shared his gratitude on how his section was always there to back him up on parts he felt that he did not completely know.
After we were finished sharing, Mr. Heroux stood at the front of the room with a teary smile on his face, and at that moment, we were all satisfied and knew we would not have been the ensemble we were without his guidance.
I do not think that there was a dry pair of eyes that morning when the orchestra students left the room. Mr. Heroux had shown us that sometimes we have to look past something such as a score or a rating to see what is truly important. No, we did not receive our desired straight superiors, but we came together as one body of students and gave the performance our all. We showed our strength, not necessarily in numbers or experience, but by the will of our resolve and determination to put on our best performance. We could not have done this, however, if it was not for Mr. Heroux. He is not just a teacher at my charter school, he is a mentor and leader who cares immensely about his students.
I cannot count the times when he has encouraged me when I felt as if I was not a good enough musician to succeed in my life. He inspires every student he comes in contact with to put their best self forward and never give up on themselves, even when a setback occurs. His lessons are full of wisdom and never fail to assist students in their day to day lives, such as the one he imparted upon us that day in my sophomore year. When I am older and reflect upon my high school career, I will always see Mr. Heroux as the noble and caring person who I aspire to be.
Mr. Porter – The Most Special Teacher
Story by Dr. Mechele Newell
In Loving Memory of and Tribute to Mrs. Katie Pugh Smith
Story by Dr. Cecil W. Payton
As young African American males growing up in the 50’s and 60’s in the tiny segregated town of Orangeburg, South Carolina, African American students naturally were relegated to attending segregated schools based on one’s skin color.
I remember well how we were bussed passed the all white schools to the all black schools that were not nearly as well equipped. That did not, however, deter us from seeking the best education that we could get. Although our schools were not as well equipped, we had some of the best, highly qualified black teachers who really cared about their students and went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were fully prepared for the next chapter in our lives.
One such teacher was the late Mrs. Katie P. Smith, a loving and caring teacher who had such a profound affect on my life. She and her husband, Hampton D. Smith were both educators, he a professor at Claflin College (now university) and she an elementary/middle school teacher in the Orangeburg County Public School System. In addition, their home was on the same street as my family’s, only about a half mile apart. I remember vividly how they would wave in their car as they passed by our home every day on the way to work. I was fortunate enough to have had Mrs. Smith as my sixth and seventh grade teacher.
Initially, she was supposed to only have been my sixth grade teacher, but she was so impressed with our class that she asked to move up one grade so that she could be our seventh grade teacher also. Of course, we were delighted because she was such a wonderful teacher who always encouraged us to do our best. She truly believed that we could be anything that we wanted to be and would always find something extra for us to learn.
One of the things that endeared me so much to her was the time when I was the only student in a class of about 30 students who spelled all 100 of the words correctly on a spelling test. She was so proud of me that she had me stand in front of the class as she shared my test result. The excitement and enthusiasm in her voice was so exhilarating to me that I still remember the moment as if it were only yesterday. That moment instilled in me the confidence that I needed to succeed. Even today, I can still hear her voice as she said, “Cecil, I am so proud of you.”
In addition to being great in the classroom, Mrs. Smith was also an avid outdoor person. She loved to take us on field trips to explore nature. On one particular trip, we all had to remove pine tree seedlings from a tree farm and plant and nurture them in our respective yards at home. Having grown up on a farm, I was so excited that I planted three pine trees at my home.
As those trees grew over the years, they continuously reminded me of Mrs. Smith who passed away about 35 years ago. It was only about five years, however, ago that we had to have the last of the three trees removed from the family’s estate for fear of it being struck by lightning. However, that site is marked by a ring of beautiful azalea plants that our mother planted years ago.
Yes, Mrs. Katie P. Smith was very special to me. I only wish that she could have lived long enough to witness the person that I have become.
Cecil W. Payton, PhD – The Kid from the “Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks”
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