You Said I couldn’t Do It. So, I did. (Or, Charles “Pokey” Looper, Suck On This.)

  • I’ve been asked, a few times, to tell a story about a rather significant fact of my life, right here for all the world to see. To expose a portion of my journey that will surprise some, inspire others and for those who said I couldn’t do it, well, I won’t leave you out. It’s a story not known by many and I’ve decided not to change names to protect the guilty. I will begin by saying thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me. Thank you for suggesting I “aim low.” Thank you for thinking I was made for less. Thank you for telling me I’d best focus on work after high school. That’s where I was headed. A factory, maybe. Or, if I really tried,  a vocational school. Thank you for making me the underdog. Not that it’s important, my achievements, but because yours were, and mine weren’t, suffice to say when it comes to walls filled with tangible evidence of success, mine is bigger than yours. And, at that, shall we begin? (Someone go tell Mr. Charles “Pokey” Looper of Monterey, TN to grab some popcorn. He plays an important role in this act.) I grew up poor. I didn’t know we were poor. But, we were. We were clean, fed, our house was spotless due to my mom’s OCD, my dad worked hard and we always had enough, if you don’t know the definition of “enough.” My dad would later tell me and my two sisters, through the saddest tears I’ve ever seen, that he wanted to give us so much more. That it hurt him, day in and day out, to just get by and never give us “extra,”…toys, ice cream, trips to the zoo…you know, stuff kids get, just because they’re kids. We didn’t really think of ever asking for extra “stuff,”…that was for the others. We grew up on my Grandma’s big farm/ranch, a rather impressive several hundred acres, and our imaginations transformed those acres into the most delightful, sprawling wonderlands, at our command. We were cowboys in the wild west. We were princesses and all the flowers that bloomed were for our pleasure, the raspberries, grape vines and apple trees were feasts we’d take turns “preparing” for one another, depending on who was the princess and who was the servant. While some kids made mud pies, we made mud landscapes that took a good 5 minutes to walk from end to end. We climbed the tall tulip poplars and God only knows how we managed to lug armloads of “ammo,” bb guns, books, snacks, water guns, blankets for forts, rocks to throw at any bad guys, slingshots, knives for etching our initials in the bark…basically all the stuff we don’t let kids near, today. We were outside from sun up til sun down, we were usually barefooted, we didn’t have to check in with our mom, because, we didn’t have neighbors. They were a good 500 acres away. As my older sister moved on and moved out, my little sister and I continued on as the gruesome twosome, and we thought we were the luckiest kids alive. We didn’t want anything. Seriously, who had their OWN apple trees? And, we dared not pick a single piece of fruit from the other’s grove. Not even kidding. We OWNED them. It was kind of sad when we saw other kids with their parents buying a few apples from a store. If they only knew. We didn’t brag about our wealth, of course. We knew not every kid could live like us, so we brought all our friends for sleepovers so they could partake in the bounty. My sister and I would carefully consider those we would and would not allow to drive the tractor…a rusted, permanent fixture on the farm that hadn’t ran for a good 20 years. We were so proud of that old Ford tractor. One of us would sit on the rusted seat and drive, shifting and stretching our legs for the pedals while the other sat on the wheel fender, driving a hundred miles and never moving an inch. As we got older, the magic of our wonderland began to look a lot like a farm and we wanted to see the world. I shared recently, how my love of travel began. After returning from that trip to England, France and Spain, however, I had a blow to the gut that knocked the spirit right out of me for quite some time. I was a senior in high school, and it was transcript day…a much anticipated rite of passage, when that little packet summarizing your performance the past four years was printed, neatly bound and ready to mail off with college applications. We had been given a couple hours after lunch to go to the guidance counselor’s office and claim that portion of our ticket to a university. As I waited in line, I listened to Mr. Charles “Pokey” Looper congratulate the girl in front of me (we were a small class…I remember her well, but, won’t mention her name, here.) I heard him tell her she was destined for great things and to stay in touch…to let him know which school she chose and she had been a great student at MHS. I was excited for the same speech, even though I knew all the words, now. As I stepped forward to his desk, Mr. Looper looked up and asked, “How can I help you, Dawn?” I was a bit confused. “I’m here for my transcripts…” He rested his elbows on his desk, clasped his hands and drew a deep breath. “Uh…Dawn…you know, you didn’t do so well with your GPA…you’re not…you’re not really college material.” He sputtered it out so quickly, as if it couldn’t be avoided and he peered behind me, held up one finger to indicate to another student, he’d be right with her. I wanted to evaporate and never be seen again. I didn’t want to move, and I didn’t want to turn around. I hadn’t found my voice to defend myself against such treatment, and somehow, I quickly ducked out of his office, past the long line of students awaiting their transcripts…the ones who were going to be congratulated, and told they’d be missed…and to stay in touch…that they were bound for greatness. I hid in the girl’s bathroom for a long time. I didn’t cry. But, inside, I was beyond crushed. I had just been sentenced to a life of minimum wage jobs and never being one of the others. My insides burned. It was a mixture of equal parts embarrassment, humiliation, defeat and fear. No one was there to tell him he was so wrong…That I could do it…I was bound for great things, too. Graduation came and went, and in the fall, my classmates said farewell to their teary-eyed parents bound for universities far and near. I joined the Air Force. I told a handful of people. It was my only ticket out. When ASVAB scores came back, the recruiters called me in and asked what job I’d intended to do in the military. I think I’ve mentioned that I quite literally based my early adult years off the movie, Top Gun. I wanted to learn weapons and work with pilots and jets, like Kelly McGillis. When they told me my scores, they were laughing. I felt that heat rising up inside me like the day I was denied my transcripts. But, they said, “Kid…you blew it out of the water. You can do any damn job you want.” I smiled. I wanted to cry, again. But, I didn’t. I pretended to know my scores would be high. The day arrived and I left Monterey, TN and MHS and Pokey Looper behind and was in Nashville by nightfall. The following morning, I flew to San Antonio, TX for basic training. By December, I was through Intelligence School in San Angelo, TX and bound for Myrtle Beach, AFB, SC…also my first choice of assignments. Everyone in my graduating class went to Offutt, Nebraska. I. Went. To. The. Beach. What transcripts? I dove in and learned all I could as quickly as possible about foreign weapons and how our inventory of fighter jets counter maneuvered each one. I kept waiting to be told I’d gotten it all wrong…that I’d screwed up the range of a particular surface to air missile in a briefing, but, I was encouraged and complimented regularly by superiors and the pilots that I briefed. I was a young pup learning at a fast pace, and they noticed. As great as the squadron life was with its travel, camaraderie, fun and opportunities to work with some elite individuals, I wanted more. I wanted that degree. The rigors of college weren’t conducive to my schedule, work load, or our level of “celebrating life” when we weren’t flying, so I finished up my few classes with a B average and called it quits until life better suited a higher education. It was several years after I’d separated from the Air Force that I was startled back to reality by a horn behind me while sitting at a red light turned green, in front of the University of Colorado. “You’re not really college material…” Mr. Charles Looper’s words were like ghosts that would visit every now and then. It was at that exact moment I realized I’d aced the ASVAB, been around the world briefing pilots on foreign weapons, was a war vet, and had eventually kicked ass at one of the more difficult roles in the military. It wasn’t long until I found myself pulling into a visitor parking space at the university and searching for the admissions building. I was assigned an admissions counselor who seemed very eager to help me navigate the system of enrolling in college. I called MHS and instructed the powers that be to forward my transcripts. I didn’t ask. I didn’t say please. I did say, “Thank you.” Within six weeks, I was a full time student at the same university I’d driven past a thousand times, wishing I was one of the others. My confidence was, at best, meager. The first class of the first day of my freshman year was physics. Physics. I had the incredible honor of being under the instruction of Professor James Burkhart. College physics was my first “A.” I ended the semester with a 4.0. Spring semester rolled around, and I was carrying 15 credit hours. Not with the greatest of ease, but, once again, I was on the dean’s list and maintaining my perfect score. By my junior year, I had developed a nerdy love for sustainable development. I dropped in to see one of my favorite professors who happened to head the department. He wrapped up his work, propped his feet up on his desk and said, “You know, we have a degree program in the field now. You should really think about extending graduation by a semester and grabbing that degree, too.” Going into my senior year with a 3.86, I’d decided to take on the 2nd degree. Denver University was doing field research on the Amazon that December, during the month long winter break and it was worth six credit hours. Wow. That meant I’d be carrying 24 credit hours that semester. I consulted some faculty mentors about the decision and with their complete confidence, found myself bound for South America for a month. It was the most demanding semester of my undergrad. But, 24 credit hours later…double the full time load, and I was sitting just shy of 4.0, again. Graduation was nearing and I had long forgotten that there was anything I couldn’t do. I wrapped up finals and was ready for a well-deserved break. I flew my parents out to watch me walk across the stage of  The World Arena and for a few brief seconds, hear their daughter’s name followed by the words, “Cum Laude.” I graduated. College. With honors. And, two degrees. And, while plenty of people cheered from the sidelines as we were all honored that day in May, I realized I would never have been as driven to obtain the first college degree in my family if it were not for people like Charles “Pokey” Looper, who delivered the crushing pain of denying my worth, instilling doubt and stripping me of what little self confidence a girl of 17 possesses. I have gone on to receive recognitions for various achievements, held positions that humbled me, they came with such responsibility. I had out-earned Mr. Looper’s entire life’s pay as a “counselor” before my 40th birthday. I don’t respect the old man, but I do thank him. Sincerely. As I completed my stroll across the stage, shaking the hands and hugging the necks of my incredible team of professors, I repeatedly heard, from each of my mentors, “Congratulations…I can’t wait to see what you do next, Dawn…I’m gonna miss you,..Stay in touch…You’re bound for greatness…” Again, I felt a fire inside, and this time…as I looked up to my parents standing, cheering, dabbing their eyes..I finally cried. Get after it. Peace, Warriors

18 Comments

  1. Dawn , There are Not enough High 5 ‘s ! ….. This needs to go to An Education Trade Magazines to be left in Teacher / Counselors Lounges to be read & newly inspired to deliver belief in all students . Isn’t that in their job description ? The ability to see through with a magnifying glass if necessary ,the nuggets of possibility & greatness in those kids And help those kids to see it, believe it, They have special gifts and limitless potential to change for the better, their corner of the World. . People who are at Trade schools ,Military , Work jobs that Make our Country work , They are all our hero’s.! There path and destiny should be their choice after encouraged that they have all it takes to do any thing they desire with that wonderful, amazing load of individual God- Given gifts and abilities !!! ♥️ That should be a Guidance counselor’s number one Job Description : :Expressed Belief in all students whoes potential has barely been tapped . To let the stelydents know tontheir core, they have Super powers they know not yet !!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. The response has been overwhelming, and, sadly, many have come forward with similar stories. I would LOVE to see this article get into the hands of educators. They DO realize the impact that make on their students and it’s time to talk about it.

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    1. Thank you, Jonathan. Not nearly enough left feeling equipping from MHS. With a few exceptions, the faculty had a club, and you knew if you were in or out. In hindsight, I’m a better person for having been out.

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  2. I Graduated from MHS in 1983, I was told by my English teacher (Gail Wheaton) there was no way I could ever make it thru college, I was an honor student at MHS. I did receive my degree in three years in Engineering from TTU. I think some teachers enjoy trying to tear down students that maybe are not one of their pets. Gail most definitely had her pets that received good grades without earning them. Good for you on finding your own way and using a negative to motivate and push you.

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    1. Congratulations, first, on using Gail Wheaton’s bias as a motivator. She was another I distinctly recall being two camps. And, if you weren’t in, …no merit would earn her favor. Congratulations on getting that engineering degree. Nobody wants to hear about a success when all the cards are stacked in that person’s odds. Thank you for sharing your journey through that difficult portion of your journey. I see a pattern that has evolved from that school. The pets were stunted in their achievements upon leaving the protection of certain unhealthy educators.

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  3. I appreciate your blunt honesty and charisma. I’m proud of you! I went through the same thing class of 07.. I was one that fell through the cracks and had no guidance whatsoever from the counselor at that time. She seemed to only care about the “popular smart kids”. I now have my Associates degree in HHS and going for my Bachelor’s now. We are strong despite how we were made to feel in highschool where it makes a big impact on our sense of self worth and confidence. Best wishes!

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    1. Tiffany,
      I’m sorry that you had a similar experience at MHS. The responses to this post are now astronomical. Publicly and privately, so many have shared heart wrenching tales of being undervalued at that school, esp by the GUIDANCE COUNSELORS, which simply boggles my mind. They need to flip burgers…these vampires should not be working with the public, let alone, kids whose well-being depends largely on the advocacy we receive from our leaders. I’m proud of your perseverance. I wish all our former classmates has similar tales of success despite the contrary nature of those we trusted.
      D-

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  4. My story is eerily similar to yours. Poor, monterey, air Force, except I gave up somewhere along the way. Thanks for the read and for what it’s worth I’m proud of you. Congrats on your success.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would only say this: it is only the end if you choose it to be. You didn’t sign a contract to give up on yourself or your dreams. You get to re-do your life, a step at a time, whenever you decide you are ready. Nobody told me it was that simple. Good luck to you, and please, keep me posted. I believe in you.

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  5. Dawn.

    As an educator in Monterey for 18 years, I went to apologize not only to you but others that felt the way you did as a graduate of MHS. My life ambition along with many others were to inspire, motivate, educate and implore each of you to go after your dreams letting no one hold you back. You have overcome and accomplished so much. I am so proud of you and all of our graduates in making a difference in society. Sometimes our best motivators are those who take bets when we will fail (my HS experience by some). But there are people who believe in each and everyone of you whether your parents, friends, siblings and yes even teachers. May God always lead and bless you, your family and life as you go out (will do) amazing things!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Denette,
      Bless you. I recall vividly, the educators that truly cared about each of us. They were rare and outnumbered by insane ratios of students drawn to their loving energy. That you are exhausted and surrounded by teens that don’t yet grasp that teachers get tired, and you show up to advocate for each of them daily is the stuff that literally changes the world. I had a “you,” at MHS, Peggy Fragopoulos, and another, now departed, loving and kind asst principal, Mr. Weatherholt. Peggy grows dearer to me each year. Your students will stay with you long after you officially stop teaching, because they will continue to learn from you. Thank you for your dedication. And, on behalf of the educators who do not fill your shoes, I am sorry that the likes of those mentioned in this publication, which has elicited an astounding number of responses, seem to throw all educators into the mix. Know that we certainly do not feel this way, as we are all seeking some long overdue closure on the disservice, negligence and despicable actions of a few. Thank you for your kind response.
      D-

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  6. I have thought about what I’ve read, your words all day and I wanted to say that I am so proud of you! I experienced similar accounts when I was in highschool, although, I must admit, it was partly my own doing… but also, other than the enormous lack of high school guidance, I was in high school during the late 70’s. That being said, I think for my generation, college still wasn’t promoted to all young women… you really had to be on the ball and I wasn’t. Maybe I would’ve been more inclined had things ever been explained to me, the process even. I remember my best friend and I when seniors, hearing about a meeting being held in the auditorium. We opened the door to walk in and were met with “What are you doing here?” We turned around and left. Like you, I never forgot that. I eventually did go down to TTU and had absolutely no idea what to do, where to start. I could say more…. I’ve somewhat made peace with the past of 40 years ago, but I will also tell you, I’m 57 years old now and I’m a college student working on my degree!

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  7. My husband graduated from MHS around 13 years ago. He told me stories of Looper. Not one of them painted a picture of a kind, understanding, helpful, or of a person that remotely liked teens. My husband said he couldn’t walk through the front door without getting detention for something (usually his shirt being untucked). He would wait outside the bathroom and get him for his shirt being untucked then too. He even harassed my husband after HS, at his then work place, for smoking a cigarette. He’d told my husband that his body is a temple and he’s ruining it! While he walks around with a suitcase of Little Debbie products! Sorry I’m ranting!not My husband’s family didn’t support him going to college (money) but if Looper did his job and was the one person that did encourage him to go I believe it would have made a difference. My husband is very intelligent but lacks confidence. I didn’t go to school here in Monterey but I’ve had the displeasure of meeting Looper. He is incredibly unpleasant to deal with. He’s rude and talks down to me while I’m trying to help him. I can’t imagine the psychological damage he did to countless teenagers over the years. It’s good to hear someone tell him to shove it! I hope your posts get back to him so he can realize that it was him who was a collosal failure his entire career

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