Sunday, February 26, 2023


As I walked down the hallway at CCHS the other day, I saw Madame Hartman bending down to pick up pieces of notes that had fallen off of lockers, an occasional candy wrapper, and discarded mechanical pencils that no longer had any lead. Madame was back at Central, taking a break from retirement and filling in for our current French teacher.

Watching Madame picking up the random items in the hallway triggered memories of another lifelong educator, a man who passed away a short time ago. 

I met Jimmy Tillman my first year teaching at Fike High School in Wilson, North Carolina, over three decades ago. I am seriously dating myself, but nowadays, I share how long I have been teaching freely to anyone who appears to be listening. Fike High School in 1990 seems so long ago, yet that time and those memories remain embedded in my heart.

Jimmy Tillman was beginning his first year as an assistant principal at Fike while I was somewhat blindly wandering the hallways as that "West Virginia boy" who made his way down south for his first full-time, never look back, teaching job. I will not claim that I learned everything I needed to learn from Mr. Tillman that first year. I only realized what he taught me many years later, long after he had returned to Fike as an incredibly influential principal and after he had moved on to many of his other achievements throughout the state of North Carolina.

Lessons are sometimes hidden securely in our memories of people who have crossed our paths in life.

Mr. Tillman was a man who effused cordiality. I could never pass him in the hallway, see him in the office, or catch him at a football game without a "Mr. Brucon, how are you doing?" (Yes, that is how he pronounced my name.) 😂 Mr. Tillman could be standing around talking with bigwigs in the county, but that never prevented him from letting people know how happy he was to see them. 

Tillman influenced me so much as a young educator once he became the principal of Fike High School. He infused our school with purpose, making our motto: Students First. While that may seem so simple, I have learned in my many years of teaching that sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to do and that we need a constant reminder of our purpose. It became an unspoken understanding that if, as a teacher, what you were doing elevated the students, helped them to learn, or pushed them to grow into young, responsible adults, he had your back. 

Mr. Tillman carved out a time in his schedule every day to walk down the hallways throughout our huge school, stopping to talk to all teachers and their classes. He wanted to know what we were doing, even if it were way above his knowledge level. He always laughed and said, "That sounds great, but I am not that smart. Ya'll go ahead with that." 

On one of his trips, we talked in the hall about the freshmen class and how so many failed to make it through the rigors and challenges of their first year in high school. Our school had students who were considered "at-risk," meaning that because of their home situation, friend association, previous poor choices, low academic performance, or drug availability in the community, they were in jeopardy of never graduating high school. Mr. Tillman asked me what I would do to address this problem. I shared the idea of having a school within the school - a freshmen academy. He loved the idea and asked me to develop a plan for it.

Throughout the year, we found a core group of teachers willing to spend the time and energy to make the academy possible. Mr. Tillman always wanted to know when we were meeting and made it a point to be there. He offered us anything we needed to make this academy work. He was there, shoulder to shoulder with us, and by the beginning of the next school year, our freshmen academy was up and running. The academy was not successful simply because we put it into place. It was ultimately successful because Mr. Tillman believed we could do it, gave us what we needed, and let us do what we needed to do to put those "students first."

Mr. Tillman was such a good man, a respected man within the community and throughout the state. When he passed, countless people felt the loss. I watched the funeral service last weekend. It was held in the thousand-seat auditorium of Fike High School, with the overflow in the school gymnasium across the hallway. I watched as his friends and colleagues paid tribute to him, sharing humorous stories about his "challenges with the English language" yet how he always chose to be the one to talk about announcements at the beginning of the day, mispronouncing words and names. Everyone always knew Jimmy Tillman had a huge head, and when the former Fike football coach talked about Tillman's idea to make a new football hat bigger with "Fruit of the Loom elastic," laughter filled the audience. Mr. Tillman was beloved for his leadership and his own comical self-awareness. 

I remember teaching at Fike and being amazed at how Mr. Tillman knew every student's name. Fike High School had over a thousand students every year. I always had difficulty learning the 100 students' names at the beginning of the year, and I saw them daily. How did this principal remain involved in all aspects of the school, run to meetings at the Central Office, attend all extra-curricular activities, and learn thousands of names so quickly? He must have had a remarkable, God-given gift.

I learned the "dirty" truth about how he did it during the ceremony. His wife Vickie had shared the secret I never knew with one of the speakers. Apparently, he would have a yearbook in the bathroom at home so that when he was "occupied," he could learn the names and faces of each student attending Fike High School. Imagine the thousand-plus audience and the people watching the live stream of the funeral service picturing Tillman on his toilet looking at the yearbook to learn the students' names attending his school. Talk about dedication. 

Jimmy Tillman, his family, and the Fike family had been on my mind for several weeks. So when Madame was picking up those papers and pencils, I could not help but remember Jimmy Tillman doing the same thing as he walked up and down the hallways at Fike High School. He could be walking with a student, a teacher, or even a superintendent, but cleaning up the school and making it better for all of us remained at the forefront of his mind.

I have so many lessons that Mr. Tillman imparted to me. What does it mean when a person makes everyone he or she encounters feel important? How does a person inspire people to be the best versions of themselves? How does picking up pieces of paper and discarded pencils show us that we can make the world better by doing the simplest things?

Thanks, Mr. Tillman.

God bless.

Sunday, October 30, 2022


I have always wanted to be a quarterback. Unfortunately, I was born with little athletic prowess and even less self-confidence to lead a football team into the end zone. That was not me. Not one bit.

I would settle for privately reenacting Joe Montana's 49ers comebacks of the '80s. I would wait until the house was empty when my mom and dad were both at work and while my brother, the family's athlete, was playing football himself. The living room and hallway were my football field, the other players recruited from my vivid imagination and the shadows sneaking around the house. I was the heroic quarterback who could overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter for a dramatic come-from-behind victory Chris Berman and Tom Jackson would colorfully recap on ESPN's NFL Primetime

I called the plays, ran the show, and celebrated victory every time. My determination was only tempered with the anxiety that a passerby would see me continually dropping back to pass as I evaded an ever-present pass rush, diving onto the couch for a touchdown as the sold-out crowd cheered my exploits.

I was the MVP of my life.

Hilde, Zo, and John told me to hurry up at the beginning of class last week; my senior English students had a surprise for me. I was skeptical and feared something terrible was going to happen. Maybe they would squirt me with a Gatorade water bottle or something. I don't need stuff like this in my life, a life already packed with enough uncertainty and anxiety. "What?" I asked. "Stop whatever you are doing. I don't need any surprises."

"Just do the prayer and random event," Hilde said, calling the play as the football team's starting quarterback. "It's nothing bad. You will like it."

Anything but this on a Friday, right? I was tired from yet another long week of teaching, trying to remember my schedule, and snuffing out fires before they flamed uncontrollably. I had already won the game just by making it here. I just wanted to finish the day by organizing my desk, planning for the following week, grading a few papers, and sipping some coffee. Easy, right? I worried that this "surprise" would disrupt my humble plans, like Reggie White charging at me with a full head of steam.

As Lexi led us in prayer, I privately asked God to deliver me from any prank these guys may pull. I finished taking roll and doing my tediously awkward pre-class schtick when Hilde called me over. "So we will give you three chances to guess the surprise." They all sat cross-armed in their chairs, Hidle staring coolly at me with a poker face that neither John nor Zo possessed.

"You are not going to squirt me with a water bottle, are you? I will lose my mind if you do that to me."

"Noooooo!" they all laughed. 

"Nothing like that," John chimed in with an eye-roll and shake of his head in disbelief.

"It is something about the podcast. You guys are mad that you haven't been on my podcast yet." I struggled as I stammered, "I-I t-told you that I would have you on soon." 

Hilde shook his head, clearly frustrated with me. "No, come on. You know what it is." Hilde started to reach for something in his hoodie and began to smile.

"You brought the wristband!"

Hilde tossed me a black wristband that he had used as a quarterback, one with a little plastic sleeve so a football player could slip in a card to reference plays during a game. I had asked him months ago about whether or not I could have one of his old ones. I think I even told him I was looking for one on Amazon because I thought it would be cool to wear one in class.

I immediately pulled it over my left hand and onto my wrist, adjusting it so the card could be seen on top. I moved my arm up and down, looking like the quarterback I always wanted to be. Beyond excited, I told them I would be back as I bolted out the door and down the hall to show some other teachers who simply had to see this. I was coming off the bench to win the game. However, my dream was no closer to reality than it was back when I ran the offense in my living room. I did not care, though. At this moment, confidence surged through my veins.

Once I returned to class from my celebratory jaunt down the hall, I knew my notion of actually being a quarterback had to fade. I was still a teacher, and they were my students; we had work to accomplish today. My exhilaration ebbed as I picked up the assignment for the day. 

"Mr. Bucon," Hilde bellowed expectantly from the back of the room. "You aren't going to call any plays for us?" 

I scrunched my eyes and shook my head begrudgingly. "I don't think I should."

"Come on, Mr. Bucon!" Zo added. "Do it!"

I looked around the room at my students. They were my class, but now they were my team eagerly awaiting my decision. I channeled that young kid in me who wanted to be a quarterback, the one who pretended to be Joe Montana in his living room, passing invisible footballs over the outstretched hands of a glowing end-table lamp. The fire was still there! "O.K.! Let's huddle up around the center table here!" I threw the Student Choice assignment we were doing on the table, clapped my hands, and inspired stragglers to hurry up. "We are in the two-minute drill."

I encouraged my team members to join the huddle. "Come on! We need to go, people!" I constantly referred to my wristband to check the play. I was sweating and nervous. Was the team hearing me? Did they feel confident in my ability to take them "to the house" for the win? "First, we need to take a look at this!" I shouted while showing them the Student Choice assignment. We inspected some examples. Intensity permeated the team, the energy palpable as I led the huddle. They were following me. "Now, this is what I need you to do if we want to win this game! Everyone got it?"

I wondered what I should do now that I had finished? My team all looked at me. I stalled.

"Student Choice on 2, Mr. Bucon," Hilde said, uncrossing his arms to be the first to stick his hand in the center of the huddle. I also stuck my hand in the center, where the entire team would soon place their hands. 

I checked off everyone to see if we were all ready. I called it: "Student Choice on 2!"


The class returned to their seats laughing, settling into the assignment with more energy than they had at the beginning of class. I sprinted to my desk to look at my wristband again, ready to write some "plays" on it. Hilde coached me on how to trim an index card and slide it into the plastic sleeve. So that's what I did. I wrote down everything I would do in each of my remaining classes that Friday. I was not going to let this dream end. I would always be a teacher, but on this day, I confidently claimed: I AM A QUARTERBACK.

ESPN'S NFL Primetime with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson
was the highlight of my Sundays. I always wondered how they
would describe a game in which I led my team to victory.