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.