Country star Randy Owen honors a passionate teacher who inspired him to aim high.
- Posted on Feb 20, 2012
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.
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.
“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.
“Mr. Owen,” he said. “You will expectorate your gum. And from now on, you will sit in the front row.”
The class snickered as I made my way to the blackboard. I wanted to run right back to the field. I was big. I was strong. I belonged there. No matter how much I loved to learn, I didn’t belong in school!
As I spit out my gum in the wastebasket a hundred smart remarks ran through my head. I could lay this guy out with one punch, I thought. Sure, I’d get expelled, but who would care? Not my math teacher. Not these other kids. Not the principal—
Mrs. Ellis would care, I thought. Mrs. Ellis believed in me. Quietly, I took my seat in the front row.
I faced an even bigger challenge in my next class. When I got there, the class bully was dangling a smaller boy out the second story window. “Pull him back in,” I ordered.
The other kids got quiet. “Who are you?” the bully sneered.
A fight would get me kicked out of school. I knew Mrs. Ellis was counting on me to graduate. But I also knew Mrs. Ellis didn’t give in to bullies. I’d seen that the day she told off the high school principal.
This kid dangling out the window needed someone to stand up for him the way Mrs. Ellis had stood up for me. Lord, please don’t make me have to fight him.
“Who am I?” I said. “I’m the guy who’s going to kick your tail if you don’t pull him back inside.”
Maybe I’d managed to channel some of Mrs. Ellis’s authority. Maybe my guardian angel stepped in to back me up. Whatever the reason, the bully gave in without a fight. He pulled the smaller boy back through the window just in time for the teacher to arrive. I took my seat.
Maybe I can make it through high school, I thought for the first time. Maybe I do have potential.
From that day on, I started thinking about the future. I imagined what I’d like to do with my life, what I could do with it if I worked hard enough. Oh, it wouldn’t be easy. There would always be things standing in my way.
But there would also be people like Mrs. Ellis, good people who cared and were willing to fight to give me a fair chance. I loved studying in school—maybe I could go to college. I loved to sing—maybe I could do it on stage.
Suddenly I had a whole life ahead of me I hadn’t known was there. Not until Mrs. Ellis showed me how to fight for it.
I never dreamed I would one day be sitting at my own desk, surrounded by gold and platinum records—and my own college diploma hanging on the wall. I’ve tried to use my success to help others reach their potential.
It’s what Mrs. Ellis would do. She’s still showing me how to live, and guiding me with the light of love, a real angel among us.
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