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David Hill: An Alternative Resource

By: David Paris
21st Century Academy

In the contemporary world of education, the drive to prepare all students through No Child Left Behind has created a great deal of pressure on each teacher to individualize instruction in hopes of making every child “above average.” Classroom teachers are asked to differentiate learning so that all students can taste success in some academic setting.

Although the goal of making all students “above average” is a noble one, the mathematical impossibility of reaching such a goal will forever make it no more than a “vision.” The sad truth is that in every school district, in every school, perhaps, in every classroom there are one or more students who will not find success in an academic setting. Administrators pressure teachers to create a learning environment aimed to enable any and all students to overcome the myriad negative influences that constantly work to undermine formal education.

Although classroom instructors have continued to rise to the challenge by raising test scores and graduation rates, thereby creating the very success-oriented lifelong learners that our future demands, some students need a different type of guidance to tap into their innate potential.

These students, for whatever reason, do not necessarily respond to the type of classroom instruction presented in spite of the hardworking efforts of the teacher.  Often, these students, small in number but large in potential, can respond to the mentoring of a different sort of educational resource. Mr. David Hill has been such a resource for many young men at Richard Hardy Memorial School in South Pittsburg, Tennessee.

Richard Hardy Memorial, a 300-plus-student, K-12, school nestled in the rural confines of the Sequatchie Valley, was built in the Progressive Era by the philanthropist of the same name, in hopes of offering the hope for a better life, as well as a hot meal and running water, to the poverty-stricken children of the employees of his cement plant.

Mr. Hill, the maintenance engineer for the school, is burdened with the task of keeping the physical plant of the facility in order.  In addition to overseeing a custodial crew of three paid employees, Mr. Hill’s 24/7 responsibilities include:  overseeing landscaping and grounds keeping, servicing and maintaining the plumbing, electrical, HVAC, telephone and computer cables, as well as serving as liaison to any contracted work that occurs within the three-building complex that occupies the twenty-acre campus.

Although Mr. Hill, a 1978 graduate of another local high school, is the first to admit that formal education was never his forte, he spent the next ten years “getting educated” while working with his hands, back, and mind in the field of heavy-construction as a pipe fitter, machinist, and ironworker.  His years of manual labor instilled in him an awareness of the economic limitations in existence for the under-educated and illiterate members of our society. Time and time again, he witnessed men, who were highly competent at their jobs, being overlooked for higher paying positions and apprenticeships because of a lack of necessary academic certification.

As the economic tides shifted away from construction opportunities in our region, Mr. Hill found a new venue for applying his skills at Richard Hardy. In addition to bringing a high level of craftsmanship to his job, Mr. Hill also brought to our school a practical view of the world and what it takes to succeed in our society.  He appreciated the problems that many young men encountered as they struggled to find success in the structured confines of the classroom.  Too often, he saw young people with seemingly, unrecognized potential fall by the wayside in their pursuit of a diploma.

He knew all-too-well the closed doors that statistics indicated would be their futures. Although he has neither children of his own nor any nieces or nephews living in the area, Mr. Hill has a warm spot in his heart for those who seemed destined not to get a fair shake in life. He took it upon himself to act.

Working with administration and guidance counselors, Mr. Hill set up a small mentoring program for a selected few young men who didn’t “fit in” with established norms and expectations. Mr. Hill would take these young men for one period a day and offer them a chance to earn school-mandated community service hours in return for completing odd jobs for him.  The time spent together offered the boys an additional opportunity to bond with a unique representative of the southern lifestyle.  Not only can Mr. Hill offer insight into the world of work, but also he can show a variety of special interest areas that include hunting, fishing, and gardening.

It became quite normal for many of the boys to see Mr. Hill not as a “teacher,” but as a respected confidant and adviser who had “been there and done that.”  Mr. Hill could talk to them about work, but he could also talk about life.  While being a demanding boss, he coupled his high expectations with an understanding of life’s difficulties, offering the young men a chance to talk to an adult who was willing to listen without being judgmental.

What began as a chance to earn a few service hours doing yard work, moving furniture, and collecting trash (but mostly, staying out of trouble) has, over the years, blossomed into a yearly full-time mentoring program for three or four high school boys, with two or three boys actually employed as temporary labor over the summer.

In addition to accumulating a few required service hours, the young men get the opportunity to experience success and, perhaps, encounter future employment interests and opportunities as they change A/C filters and light bulbs, help lay out and run electrical, telephone, and fiber optic cables, do rough carpentry, mix and pour concrete, and provide general maintenance for the school, jobs that give them a chance to apply skills they learned in the very classrooms in which they once performed so poorly.

Whenever possible, Mr. Hill tries to help his minions with the next step, the real world. One young man, who in the 10th grade was identified as a drug user, began working with Mr. Hill. After two years, he earned the opportunity to join the apprentice program of a local trade union upon graduation. This was a feat that many, his parents included, would have never imagined if not for Mr. Hill, his mentoring, and his personal contacts.

Over the years, Mr. Hill has become more than just a maintenance man to the school.  His soft heart belies his crusty, curmudgeonly exterior. He has helped many of the students at Richard Hardy in many ways, ranging from golf coach to chaperon for over-night trips.  His thick shock of curly, reddish-brown hair and beard, his portly girth (which does, indeed, “shake like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughs) make him a natural personification of Santa Claus for many of the younger students each year.  His quick wit and sense of irony have led him to run the pie throwing booth each year at the Fall Festival, giving many students the chance of a lifetime as he entices teachers, coaches, and administrators into serving as targets for student-thrown whipped-cream-filled pies.

This year’s fifth graders still remember Mr. Hill as the driver of the “Big Red Happy Bus” during their kindergarten year.  While their classroom was being refurbished, they would see Mr. Hill stop what he was doing and use his own Suburban to transport the class (eight per load, four times a day) back and forth to a local church that had donated use of its fellowship room as substitute classroom.

Mr. David Hill is truly an “educator” in every sense of the word.  His time at Richard Hardy has renewed his belief in the role of education, as he earned an associate’s degree at the age of forty-two.  His real world experiences have led him to a place where he can not only earn a living, doing what he enjoys doing, but also that offers him a chance to pass on some things that are even more important.  Each year, Mr. Hill takes it upon himself to offer young people a chance that many of them may not have gotten and may never get again; the chance to spend some time with a caring adult who can offer them the opportunity to feel success.  Our schools need more people like David Hill.  Richard Hardy is thankful to have him.