When you were in high school, remember how old you thought all your teachers were?
Now you look back and realize that they weren’t all that old – mainly because you’re kind of close to that age now.
One of my teachers at Statesboro High School, Henry Turpin, died Christmas Eve. He was 80. When he taught me, he was 49, a number I’m closing in on fast. I would have sworn on a stack of textbooks he was in his 60s back then, with his slate-gray hair.
At your high school it might have been called “Civics” or “American Government.” At SHS it was “Citizenship,” and Mr. Turpin taught it. It was the class all seniors had to pass to graduate and, buddy, you better believe he knew it. I still remember the hallway buzz about his class:
• “He’s the toughest teacher in school.”
• “He’s the closest thing to a college professor you’ll see before you graduate.”
• “He shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
OK, not that last one. To my knowledge.
My idea of studying was taping class notes to my car’s dashboard as I drove to school the morning of a test. Mr. Turpin, and the need to pass his class, spurred me to step up my game.
There was an oral portion of his final exam. While the other students answered the questions on paper, he would call each of us up to his desk in alphabetical order, where we would sit and recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution from memory.
SOME KIDS STRUGGLED with it, but for others of us it was easy. We had grown up on those Schoolhouse Rock cartoons on Saturday mornings. One famous cartoon set the words of the Preamble to music. We all heard that catchy tune so many times we knew the Preamble like the Lord’s Prayer.
But Mr. Turpin was wise to that. That’s why he had us recite it on one condition. I still can picture him issuing that condition as he peered over his half-rimmed eyeglasses: “No singing.”
There’s no telling how many students entered his class scared or intimidated, not knowing what to expect. But they left smarter. And as I surfed through Facebook the other day, I came across a lot of my classmates who felt the same way. Someone who graduated a couple years behind me called the class “Turpinship.” That’s the best description of the class I’ve heard yet.
Mr. Turpin’s lectures went beyond what was in our textbook. He questioned you. He challenged you. He didn’t push agendas. He prompted students to think.
I regret that I never saw him again after my final exam. But I can only imagine what he might have thought in his final years as a retired teacher, had he seen any of the recent studies about how people are growing increasingly undereducated about basic civics.
THE ANNENBERG Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania conducted a national survey in 2014 to gauge how well adults grasped how government works. Adults, mind you, not students. And too many of the folks who answered the survey are just the type Mr. Turpin would have loved keeping after school.
• “While little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.”
• “Just over a quarter of Americans (27 percent) know that it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.”
• “One in five Americans (21 percent) incorrectly thinks that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.”
In 2012, a national survey issued by Xavier University in Cincinnati found that one in three native-born Americans would fail the civics portion of the test that immigrants need to take to gain U.S. citizenship. This was when 97 percent of foreign applicants passed that same test.
As I was writing all this, I wasn’t sure why I was shedding a tear – because one of my favorite teachers passed away, or because Americans are more likely to correctly name a finalist from the TV show The Voice than the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Knowing civics makes you a better informed voter. Knowing your rights and responsibilities as an American helps empower all of us to change what needs to be changed. There’s a certain dignity and confidence that comes with knowing how your government works (and maybe dread and frustration in learning how your government doesn’t work).
I never got to thank Mr. Turpin, but I like to think I honor him every day simply by remembering what he taught me.
It honors our country, too.