Remembering Jean Massengill

David Epps's picture

Jean Masengill was an imposing presence at Dobyns-Bennett High School. It wasn’t that she was harsh or mean — quite the opposite. But she was serious about the subjects of English and literature.

The fact that I was a jock, a center on the school’s football team, impressed her not one whit. Neither was she impressed by my attempts to play the cool guy or the class clown. Any charm that I may have possessed was lost on her. She was there to teach and she assumed that you were there to learn.

I wasn’t, of course. I loved high school, but, to be honest, I didn’t invest a great deal of time in study. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to afford to go to the college of my choice.
Actually there were several — Emory & Henry College, Tennessee Wesleyan College, and Asbury College. For me, they were out of range financially. I knew that I would likely live at home in Kingsport, Tenn., and go to East Tennessee State University in neighboring Johnson City. With all the wisdom of a high schooler, I decided to just do enough to get by.

That might have been all right with some teachers, but not Mrs. Masengill. I spent more than a few sessions in her office being confronted for my lack of drive and my lack of motivation. Finally, she isolated me from most of the other students and, along with a couple of other miscreants, banished us to the back of the room to a location she called “The Evil Corner.”

I can only imagine how frustrated she must have been. I consistently scored in the Stanine 9’s on the standardized tests and all the tests revealed that I was much more capable than my grades demonstrated. Yet, however much she tried, I was content to perform at a level that simply didn’t get me grounded or cause me to lose access to the car.

At the end of my high school career, I was on the way to graduation exercises at the school. As I walked down the hallways for the last time as a student, Mrs. Masengill spied me and placed herself between me and the doorway to the gymnasium where the graduation would take place.

Putting her hands on my shoulders, she looked me straight in the eye and, with tears in her own eyes, said, “David, if you ever amount to anything in life, please come back and tell me so I can quit worrying about you and quit praying for you.” And with that she was gone.

I nearly flunked out of college in my second quarter because I hadn’t prepared myself. Rather than face that possibility, I withdrew from school and joined the Marine Corps.

When my enlistment was over, armed with the G. I. Bill, an honorable discharge, and some new-found discipline, I returned to East Tennessee State and graduated with honors. Later, I did the same in graduate school.

I did go back to see Mrs. Masengill and she asked me to come and speak to her class. I even located my usual chair in “The Evil Corner” and sat there until my time to address the class.

During her introduction of me, she included this: “I wanted David to come and speak to you today because I want you to know that if HE can make it then there’s no excuse why YOU can’t make it too.”

Of the five most influential people during my high school days, she was among them and close to the top of the list.

A few weeks ago I learned from her daughter, whom I met on Facebook, that Jean Masengill died in 2005. She would be amazed and amused to know that I have penned a column every week for nearly 14 years and have been published in numerous magazines, even winning an award once.

Or maybe not. She had a gift for seeing potential in a person, even if that person didn’t see it themselves.

She also had another gift — she deeply cared. That, I never doubted. And that caring — that heartfelt concern — was what finally penetrated my apathy, my indifference, and my thick skull.

If I never said it before, “Thank you, Mrs. Masengill. You really did change my life. I wish I had told you sooner.”

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Fellowship in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]