The phone rang at 10:15 p.m. Sunday night. My first reaction was, “Who in the world is calling at this time of night?” When I saw that the my cell phone screen said UNAVAILABLE I was really curious. I immediately thought there was no way this was good news.
But I was wrong. It was my friend Richard Bryant from Wilcox County returning my call from earlier in the day.
I met Richard when we did the study, Lessons Learned From Rural Schools, in 2008-09. He was principal at F. S. Ervin elementary in Pine Hill on the west side of the county. And a good one. The school is tucked away on a side street, out of sight of those who zip through town on highway 10. It was Richard’s pride and joy until he retired in 2011 after 40 years in education.
The school was a tribute to his dedication. Neat as a pin inside, landscaped outside. Richard said the school was painted each year, even though the school board gave him no money to buy paint. But this didn’t deter him because he was very resourceful and had a lot of friends he didn’t mind calling on to help the school.
For instance, he would ask community members what they were doing next Saturday morning. When they wanted to know why he asked, he told them, “We’re mowing grass and thought you might help.” If they said they already had plans and could not help, he was likely to then ask if they could give him a gallon or two of gasoline.
When he first became principal he found a building in need of a lot of cleanup and repair. The first thing he did was find the custodian and take away his keys, telling him, “It’s obvious you don’t need them because the school looks terrible.” His next stop was the Wilcox County jail where he rounded up some trustees who promised to work hard in return for the best food they’ve had in since being incarcerated.
Dr. Owen Sweatt was one of our three team members working on the study. I well recall Owen calling me shortly after his first visit to Ervin to tell me it was one of the best kept facilities he had ever seen. Anywhere.
Richard believed in discipline and high expectations. And in a community mired in poverty, he didn’t let this keep him from developing pride in his young students. He constantly sought out ways to show his students a world they were not normally exposed to. Which is why he started having a parade in Pine Hill one Saturday each fall. He simply thought his children deserved to see what a parade was all about, And on an October Saturday I drove from Montgomery to Pine Hill to watch as fire trucks, bands and Miss this and that, honked and tooted and threw candy to happy youngsters.
One of the etched-in-stone things I learned from this study was that the principal is the most important link in the education chain. You don’t have good schools without good principals. Richard Bryant drove this point home forcefully.
Some today would call my friend “old school.” He worked hard to get his own education, driving a school bus in Wilcox County each day before driving 90 miles one way to take classes at night at Alabama State University in Montgomery. Richard would not argue with this description and would wear it with pride.
Richard Bryant is a good man. In his own way, he made a difference in the lives of hundreds of young people. He knows far more about what education is really all about than will ever be conjured up in strategic plans or legislation pushed on us by non-educators.
But people in Montgomery seldom turn to folks like Richard Bryant for advice. Which speaks volumes about why education in Alabama continues to flounder.