One moment from a teacher can often last a lifetime. In a sophomore U.S. history class at T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, South Carolina, Mrs. Nan Drew made one of those moments for me when sharing the story of Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympic Games.
Far from simply relating the facts, she patiently explained the importance of Jesse Owens’ refusal to raise the arm to Hitler while instead bravely saluting the American flag. With passion and deep respect, Mrs. Drew recounted the spectacular event as a hallmark in American history. Not only did Jesse Owens single-handedly dispel Hitler’s myth of white supremacy, but, as Mrs. Drew shared that day in class, “He stood up for America.”
Ironically, Jesse Owens later shared, "Hitler didn't snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president [Roosevelt] didn't even send me a telegram." Owens stated this at a rally of Republican African Americans in Kansas City on October 15, 1936.
Both Roosevelt and Truman failed to honor Owens. Eisenhower did, and Ford eventually awarded Owens the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Just a few years after that award, Mrs. Drew shared with a class of tenth graders the importance of Jesse Owens.
In a state often castigated for racism, one South Carolina teacher refused to alter U.S. history, but rather celebrated the extraordinary life of a man who saluted America in a hostile land only to return to hostility and demeaning apathy from his president.
History alone serves as a powerful teacher, but in the hands of passionate and informed educators, history becomes so much more. Decades later, I can still picture the pride and almost reverence Mrs. Drew expressed for Jesse Owens and the respect he showed for the United States of America.
Sadly, Mrs. Drew died this year, but her passionate words and love of country outlive her.
Watching our media and political figures stoking division in this country, they would all be well served to have a Nan Drew in their lives. With boldness and unabashed esteem for this country and the people who made it so, Mrs. Drew refused to see black or white but rather shared with students the value of character and patriotism. Without using words like “perfect” or “flawless,” Mrs. Drew taught U.S. history from a place of humility, devotion, and respect.
One class – one student at a time, teachers possess amazing power to shape a life and a belief system.
Mrs. Drew did that for me. She told of a country that aspired to unimagined heights despite a terrible birth defect. At no point did she ever recommend destroying the country any more than parents of a special-needs child would destroy the child. Rather, she directed her students to acknowledge and learn from the past. Just like parents of a special-needs child would do, she advocated for nurturing and equipping this country to grow beyond limitations.
The history of every life is filled with moments of greatness and beauty, along with times of shame and regret. How much more so a nation? Each glorious moment remains important and deserves celebrating. Likewise, each failure warrants reflection and sometimes mourning.
As America stands divided, maybe the lesson from a man who stood alone in defiance against the evilest political force in modern history can beckon us to pursue the path of patriotism – even for an imperfect country. That path may very well be the only road leading away from the cliff.