What Joeleen Taught Me


This school year marks my tenth year as a teacher, my fourth at Spring Valley High School. This is the longest I’ve ever worked at one place. I usually work in threes: a journalist (2005-2008), a teacher at Carolina Forest High School (2008-2011); and a graduate student at the University of South Carolina (2011-2014)—with a one year stint at Coastal Carolina University before coming to SVHS.

I’ve taught elementary school-aged children poetry with The Watering Hole Poetry Organization; I’ve taught adults composition at the Columbia campus of Virginia College; I’ve taught incarcerated men creative writing at Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville.

Teaching is my heart work, and I’ve been teaching in some capacity for the past ten years.

Some say that the public school system is broken. That maybe true. The truth is that our young people who show up every morning to that system need good people to not only teach them, but to care about them as well. I’m blessed to be in that number.

As we get closer and closer to the first day of school, I find myself anxiously anticipating what I believe will be a good school year. I am also reminded of a lesson I learned in college. This lesson was not in a classroom, but on a basketball court.

My basketball coach at Agnes Scott College was Joeleen Akin. She was—and probably still is—a follower of Coach John Wooden. One of his tenants she preached to us was the cornerstones of the Pyramid of Success: Enthusiasm and Industriousness: Have fun and work hard.

This lesson has never left me and continues to guide me in my personal and professional endeavors. Industriousness and enthusiasm can be the cornerstone of any classroom, team, workplace, or organization.


Be excited about your work. This is not a “fake ‘til you make it” sort of enthusiasm or the type where you have to jump up and down and flap your arms. This enthusiasm goes beyond the actual, physical work you are doing. This enthusiasm is having energy with the people who are at the center of your work.

If I’m monotone, dragging, and uninterested everyday, my students will sense that and feed on that energy. The same goes for any work we do. What type of energy do we bring into a room when we walk into it?

We all have bad days—those low energy days when it doesn’t matter how much coffee we drink. However, if our bad days outweigh our good days, we need to listen to that and adjust accordingly.


I won’t make more money for working harder than the teacher who is printing out worksheets for students. However, my motivation to work hard in my profession is not motivated by money, but by my desire for my students to value the power of language in this present and in our future.

This year my curriculum is undergoing a paradigm shift. I am modeling my curriculum after Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. This new model will include more writing conferences and adding reading conferences. It will be a mess and messy, but that’s life. As I told a colleague recently, “It’s not about perfection; it’s about progress and process.” I’m willing to put in the work because I know my students will be better for it.

Industriousness and enthusiasm are a team. One compliments the other. I have a copy of the Pyramid of Success in my classroom that I look at often. I’ve never used it in my classroom with my students, but I think I will this year as a way for us to build community and share a common vision. That’s ultimately what Coach wanted us to do: Unite over a set of common principles.

Coach Akin was also our Director of Athletics, and she would eventually be promoted to Dean of Students. She is now Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator at Georgia Tech. I’m sure the cornerstones held her up throughout her career, however subliminally.

Those same cornerstones will help me through this coming school year.

A Good One

“Hello, my Amerikees!”

It was one of my father’s favorite greetings whenever he would come home. I’d hear his truck on the gravel path of our driveway. I’d look out the window and see him driving his dark blue 1987 Ford Ranger towards the shed. Sometimes I would even come out to the back porch and watch him get out of the truck. He would wave with his hands that seemed too big for a man of his size, smile and say, “Hey, baby girl!” and I replied, “Hey, daddy.” I’d turn and go back in the house.
This scene didn’t happen when I was a little girl. It happened when I am a grown woman in my early twenties. To say that I have always been a daddy’s girl is an understatement. I had special real estate in the area since I was the only girl and the youngest child.

“Hey, Shaveevee!”

He would greet me sometimes, a severe mispronunciation of my middle name, Sharain.

I can still hear him: his voice, his syntax, his special country boy way of talking. Father’s Day 2018 will make my seventh year without him.

Father’s Day is a hard day for those of us whose fathers are dead. Dead is a cold word. It doesn’t hide behind the pretty euphemisms of “passed away” or “gone.”

Da in Suit
Da before Cousin Debra’s wedding, sometime in the 90’s.

For a few years after he died I didn’t celebrate Father’s Day. My dad was dead and I didn’t feel like celebrating anybody else’s daddy. And if you’re reading this and your father is dead, know that it’s okay to not celebrate. It’s okay to sit in whatever feelings you may have and to even cry if you need to.

He may be dead, but he lives on in me.

My brothers and I lived in the same house in Bluefield all of our years in school; we never had any utilities disconnected because of lack of payment; we always had food to eat, even if it wasn’t cooked and ready: the cupboards, fridge, and deep freezer always had food in them; we always had a mode of transportation to get where we needed to go; we had both parents in the home, and they went to work everyday. As an adult, I would figure out why Da wouldn’t say “I love you” often: Acts of Service was his love language.

This Father’s Day I remember him, all of the memories and moments we had together, the fish fries and cookouts, all the summers shelling butterbeans and peas from his garden, the times he would “play possum” to trick me, or the time we went fishing and only caught little baby fish we eventually threw back into the river.

My daddy’s dead, but I’m blessed. I had a good daddy.



Stuck at Start

The research on Bluefield includes hours of interviews with elders of the villages, some of whom have since passed on; water and soil samples to determine if nature is the cause of so much cancer deaths and diagnoses; and the journal entries I wrote documenting my mother’s fight with colon cancer.

It’s about five years worth of research sitting in front of me. And although I am a poet, my spirit is telling me that prose is how I should tell this story.

This writing project is scary. Terrifying.

I am stuck at start, unclear on how I should proceed. One thing I do know for sure is that I must push through it. Even if I’m writing bad prose. Even if I write three or four consecutive bad pieces. The story of Bluefield is too important not to be told. I must start somewhere. Put my head down and put in the work.

For the most part, I am obsessed with the end product.

To shift into start, I need to focus on the process and not the product. I am over-thinking it; I need to just write, write.

Two main steps I need to get me there are:

  1. Set a specific goal. I need to make myself write a certain amount of words everyday. Even if they are bad, the act of writing will get me into a practice will lead to good writing.
  2. Turn the TV off. Turn the computer on, but don’t allow social media to distract me or take an hour to catch up on email.

I would not diagnose this as writer’s block, but I do wonder about its origins?

What is this fear that reaches inside of me and tells me that I am not enough? Not able to write another good poem, not able to write a book of prose

This story I am trying to tell is what I want people to see about the little corner of the world I called home for most of my life. The process of how I get there is the hard part; it is less visible. The work that seems so effortless when we are reading a finished book in our hands is hours of a writer carefully crafting each sentence.

When I did my interviews for this project, Mrs. Everlina Jacobs was one of the first people I interviewed in 2012. She and her husband Mr. Pete Jacobs were also the first to settle in Bluefield. Something she said in her interview stays with me to this day: “And we moved here in ’63, and I ain’t left since. I ain’t planning on leaving until God calls me. I’ma be right here.”

She had resolve.

Her and Mr. Pete must have been scared being Black people in a still segregated South Carolina who were homeowners for the first time; having rattlesnakes crossing the road from the tobacco barn; having to clear the woods from the land where they would build their first home, the only home they would have until their deaths.

They had never owned their own land until they did.

We all have goals, dreams, and wishes. And we also have what seems like an insurmountable mountain that stands between these desires and ourselves. Some of us want to start our own businesses, some of us want to save the environment, some of us want to see justice where there is injustice.

We all have heart work we need to bring into this world.

And like the Jacobs, we all must press through and press on. And begin: Now.