The term “knowledge-based economy” is being bantered around today as if it is something new. There is little doubt that workers now need to focus on learning, cultivate a critical and independent-thinking mind and stay attuned to the rapidly changing world around them in order to find success not only in the workplace but in life in general. But it is not a new concept. I heard it in the 1970s. My mother had it preached to her in the 1950s. Scores of others learned about it before she did. And it all came from one person.
On September 12, the First United Methodist Church of Greenville will hold a special service followed by a luncheon to honor a pillar of the church and a legendary educator. I don’t use that term loosely, because by every measure, Nell Thomas is indeed a legend.
A multiple State Teacher of the Year winner (she won it consecutively in 1964 and 1965), “Nellie,” as she is affectionately referred to by her former students, taught English and speech in the Greenville schools for decades. Over her career, she touched — molded — hundreds of young people. The students and the times changed, yet Ms. Thomas’ straight-from-the-heart teaching style, her indomitable spirit and her commitment to excellence proved timeless. That’s why today when the subject of Nell Thomas comes up, the words “best teacher ever” are routinely heard.
There are some teachers who have the knowledge and passion for the subject that gains students’ attention. There are those who have the ability to challenge their students, “tough teachers,” who expect more than students believe they can give. And then there are those educators who have the charisma and personality that students find irresistible. Few, however, bring all of these. Nellie did. She was “the package.”
I had Ms. Thomas for world literature as a senior at Greenville High School. I had never given a whit about literature before entering her classroom. Before I knew it, I was walking the halls, debating with my classmates about the merits of Plato’s “The Republic,” or the significance of “I” in the title of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Practically everything I know about literature, I learned in her class.
However, the written word was simply the vehicle Nellie used to further her true agenda and mission. Her philosophy was simple — “God has given you a mind, now use it.”
She believed education was the great equalizer. She encouraged independent, innovative thought. Complacency and mediocrity earned a hard stare and words spoken between the teeth. Worse still, sometimes she became so disappointed that she would actually cry.
This had a telling effect on two sets of people — her students and school administrators. Neither group had the nerve nor the heart to show a lack of commitment or interest in Ms. Thomas’ quest for excellence in education. And both groups appreciated her integrity.
In an interview conducted in 1976, Dr. William Bert Thompson, who served in the Greenville Public Schools for decades and was superintendent during integration, when asked what assets he had at his disposal to overcome the many challenges he faced, said, “I had Nell Thomas in English (as) chairman of the English department.”
No one was more open-minded to change than Nell Thomas. There was always room in her curriculum for a new idea and more desks in her class for new faces. She was more than eager to compromise, as long as it did not involve her principles concerning quality education.
Nellie believed that learning how to learn was as important, maybe more so, than learning itself. Her students left her classroom changed young people, confident that if they could pass Nellie’s class, they could grasp anything. She instilled the self-confidence young people need as they embark on adulthood.
Ms. Thomas is retired now, and a stroke has confined her to a wheelchair. But anyone who knows her can assume, correctly, that she is still active and a force with which to be reckoned. Joanne Downing, a former student, member of First United Methodist and one of the organizers of the special day for Nellie, said, “That mind is still razor-sharp. She had to give up teaching our Sunday School class after the stroke, but she’s back now. You know, she has been teaching Sunday School here since 1949.” Lifelong dedication and commitment to learning — that is Nell Thomas.
The worship service will get underway at 10:55 a.m., and Ms. Thomas will be recognized during the service. Immediately following, there will be a luncheon in the Fellowship Hall where former students and colleagues, church members, friends and family can tell her “thanks,” not just for caring about us, but believing in us, as well.
You are the best, Nellie.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.