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The popular musician pays tribute to a passionate teacher who inspired him to aim high.
Anyone listening to the radio around Christmastime 1993 would have heard me singing about angels. As part of the group Alabama, I was proud of our hit “Angels Among Us.”
I got hundreds of letters about that song over the years, and I cherished every one. From time to time, I sit at my desk, surrounded by records framed on the walls, and read them.
“This song is a blessing,” one woman wrote. “I truly believe there are angels among us!” I believed it too. In fact, if it wasn’t for one of those angels on earth, I would have had a very different life.
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Back home in rural Alabama, none of the kids I knew finished high school. When you were struggling to make ends meet day to day it was hard to imagine your life being anything else.
My junior high teachers said a degree would help me get a good job, but my daddy needed my help on the farm now. I dropped out of school.
A year later I returned—but not as a student. After a day working in the fields, I put in a couple hours doing janitorial work. If any of the teachers or staff thought it was odd, they didn’t say so. Except Mrs. Ellis.
Reading over my letter, I remembered the day the principal confronted me while I was sweeping up. I caught sight of her bright red hair as she marched over to me. “Owen,” she said in her scratchy voice. Why would a straight-A student drop out before high school?”
All my good reasons for dropping out disappeared at the sight of Mrs. Ellis. “I don’t know,” I mumbled.
“As an educator, wasted potential offends my sensibilities,” she said. “It’s about time you went back.”
And juggle farm work with my studies? Besides, I’d been away for over a year. I could never catch up!
“I’ll have your transcript tomorrow,” she said. “Take it to Fort Payne High School and get enrolled.”
I leaned back in my desk chair and looked around. Gold and platinum records lined the walls. It made me think of a different office—the principal’s at Fort Payne High. I stood in front of his desk watching him go over my transcript, a college degree framed on the wall behind him.
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“Look, son, however well you think you did in junior high,” he said, eyeing my farm clothes with suspicion, “you’re too far behind to catch up now. Go back to the fields.”
I thanked him for his time and went to my janitor’s job. I tried, I thought as I washed the floor. School just wasn’t meant for guys like me.
“Owen!” Mrs. Ellis came marching down the hall. “You’re supposed to be in high school.”
When I told her what the principal said her face got as red as her hair. “Follow me!”
A minute later I was in yet another principal’s office, Mrs. Ellis’s, only this time I wasn’t the one getting yelled at. Mrs. Ellis was willing to fight for me in a way no other teacher had. “You want that transcript sent registered mail, you’ll have it!” she said, slamming down the phone.
The principal had to let me into the high school, but he didn’t like it. “If I see you in my office even once,” he told me when I showed up for my first day, “it will be your last day at Fort Payne High.”
As I opened another letter, I hummed “Angels Among Us” to myself. “I believe there are angels among us...to show us how to live...to guide us with a light of love.”
Mrs. Ellis had surely done that for me. Even after I got to high school I relied on her to get me through. Like the day in math class when my teacher caught me chewing gum.