“A Legacy of Love”
Recently, the educational community lost a stalwart in the profession, an ambassador of civic service, and a guide to literally thousands of students. Ms. Alvenes Barksdale was truly one of the most exceptional educators I ever met.
My recollection is markedly biased since Ms. Barksdale was my guidance counselor when I was a student at Bell Street Junior High School. I was in the first integrated class to enter Bell Street. Granted, as a small, nerdy middle school student with large black horn-rimmed glasses, I was uncertain about a lot of things…going to a fully integrated school notwithstanding. The first African-American face I saw at Bell Street was Alvenes Barksdale. She welcomed me as though I were her own child. She was sweet, kind, and supportive.
She asked me what I planned to do (even before career counseling became vogue) and I told her I planned to go in the ministry; I planned to preach…like my itinerant grandfather, Madison Craig Blanton. I remembered Ms. Barksdale said, “Ohhh, that’s MAAH-velous. I am sure you will be a great one.”
Ms. Barksdale also could be very stubborn…but always in the students’ best interests. When I scheduled my classes for eighth grade, I opted for General Math instead of Algebra I. She politely took my sheet and nothing else was said…until the first day of eighth grade…when I found out Ms. Barksdale had overruled my choice. I went to her and said, “Algebra was not what I signed up for.” She nodded and then responded, “I know. It’s not what you signed up for and it’s not what you need. You need Algebra. Preachers need to know how to do more than general math.” And she was right…not so much because I needed that class but because I needed to be challenged.
Ms. Barksdale never allowed people to coast through life, take the easy road, make the convenient decision. She expected excellence and her office was her pulpit. She preached a message of educational opportunity and making the most out of one’s experiences.
My next memory with Ms. Barksdale was as a colleague. I returned in 1984 to Bell Street, now a middle school, and guess what? Ms. Barksdale was still the guidance counselor. Again, Ms. Barksdale met me and said, “Ah, David. You look MAAH-velous. I am so glad you are back with us.” She never questioned my career change…from preacher to teacher…she welcomed me into the trenches of educational excellence. She continued to extol the virtues of hard work, of effort, and of choices.
Ms. Barksdale retired in 1988 but her legacy remained one of service, of support, and of needed confidence boosts. She often would just drop by to see me and say, “I am so proud of you.” She and I had many conversations over the years; I still sought her advice and graciously received her counsel.
When Bell Street closed as the middle school, Ms. Barksdale remained an advocate for the facility’s usefulness. She wanted the building to remain an edifice of educational opportunity. She was a founding member of the “Bell Street Revitalization Committee.” As a result, we dedicated efforts to continue to use the facility for educational opportunities. Although she never lived to see it, I am sure she was proud when the Laurens County School Districts 55/56 used the Bell Street Facility as the site of the annual Team Ecology event (in concert with the Joe Adair Center). It is also no accident the Clinton Middle and Clinton High Science Olympiad teams continue to use Bell Street. There would never have been a Clinton Middle or Clinton High Science Olympiad team had it not been for Bell Street. In fact, Bell Street Middle School was the first middle school to win the South Carolina Science Olympiad competition in 1986 and again in 1987, both of which was when Ms. Barksdale was guidance counselor at the school.
Terri and I were invited to Ms. Barksdale’s 90th Birthday party…and I kept the invitation in my car long after the event. Ms. Barksdale seemed then to be as lively and alert as I could ever remember. She was much loved because the birthday party was a celebration with literally hundreds of people in attendance…all with stories like mine. During the party, many people retold stories of how influential Ms. Barksdale was in their lives and during their middle or high school struggles.
Although Ms. Barksdale is no longer with us physically, her legacy of love, support, and passion remain as vibrant today as when she started in education. Ms. Barksdale remains a legend in the pantheon of great educators in Laurens County School District 56. She showed me there isn’t that big a difference between preaching and teaching…both seek to make life a little better and to leave the world a better place for having lived fully and having loved unconditionally.
Rest well, Ms. Barksdale. You were MAAH-velous!
(Dr. David O'Shields is Superintendent of District 56.)