There is a very special place in my heart for the schools in Jackson, Tennessee. From elementary school at Andrew Jackson to middle school at Tigrett and high school and college at Jackson Central-Merry and Union University, I am fully a product of the Jackson-Madison County public school system and West Tennessee higher education.
Considering this deep tie, and with distance (both physical and temporal), I have had a chance to reflect a bit on the role that Jackson education has played on my overall personal and professional development. In doing so, there may be points of both encouragement and challenge for the broader West Tennessee community to continue to ensure that these elements are recognized, maintained, and maybe strengthened.
My first love was baseball, and that pretty much defined my waking hours throughout high school and college. Whether it was staying late after practice for a few more swings at the JCM baseball field or stretching on Union’s Fesmire Field in February before a cold early season Saturday doubleheader, my youth and early adulthood were spent in a team setting. Having moved on from competitive sports, I have come to realize how important and applicable cooperation, teamwork, and patience are within the context of a fast-paced international work environment.
In 2010, I played a role coordinating a team of government representatives from twenty-seven countries in the European Union to solidify the EU’s position on a tricky health initiative at the United Nations’ labor organization. I saw firsthand how the patience and approaches I had learned playing on a diverse sports team at JCM allowed me find ways of navigating what was a very difficult, delicate, and demanding negotiation process. I had to be okay letting others take the lead and content with playing a subordinate role if need be. I wasn’t finished unless everyone was finished and, like finding the energy for one more windsprint, pushed through multiple all-nighters and timezones to get the job done.
Whether one participates in band, cheerleading, yearbook staff, Academic Decathlon, or football, I believe strongly that it is essential to ensure students graduate having learned what it means to give and serve within a team context.
Leave space to break the rules.
In January of my fifth grade year at Andrew Jackson Elementary, my mom got the bright idea to take me out of school for two weeks and haul me to Europe to visit a friend who was guiding a group of college students studying abroad. The problem was that trip was in the middle of the school year, and the rules were fairly strict about attendance. Fortunately I had a good teacher (thanks, Mrs. Ross), who had a bigger vision for what she wanted her students to see and learn. Bending the rules slightly, she gave me a two-week “pass” and sent me on my way with a journal to write about my trip to Paris and London.
That was twenty years ago. This past year I sat on a panel in Paris in front of 200 French diplomats and military officers at the French National Military Academy (the French equivalent of West Point) discussing the political dynamics of the European Union elections. I also recently had the opportunity to have tea in Westminster (the British Capitol Hill) overlooking the River Thames in London with a Member of the British House of Lords trying to convince him and his political party to use a website that I have been developing with a company I helped start in Switzerland.
It is very true that you never know where a particular experience may lead. Mrs. Ross’ willingness to give me space to learn in an unconventional way through something that may not have lined up exactly with the administration's checklist, opened the first crack in a door that has led me to an incredible range of opportunities.
Learn how to learn.
I was a bit awkward in middle school. I was a little pudgy, struggling with Pre-Algebra, and having a hard time finding my niche within the intimidating social sphere of I.B. Tigrett Middle School. One of my biggest frustrations was that the work was more challenging than it had been before. There seemed to be much more to memorize and remember. Though this foundation was important, I was more interested in abstract problem solving, Social Studies, projects, and creative writing. Luckily I had teachers who also nurtured skills that taught me how to learn in addition to what to learn (hats off to Mrs. Cain, Mrs. Gilbert, and Mrs. Fowler).
Their efforts to push us towards thinking new things massaged a curiosity gene that has opened a lot of neat doors from being invited by the Swiss government to India to learn about Indian society and politics, to living at the base of the Andes in Chile and learning Spanish, to sleeping in a cave in Morocco with a Bedouin family and their pet goat, because . . . well, it just kind of happened.
I don’t remember the details of any test I took in my thirteen years in Jackson-Madison County public schools. I don’t recall any lasting significance of my being late to class a few times. And no one in any country has ever asked my what my high school (or college, for that matter) GPA was.
However, I do remember that Mrs. Thompson (now Mrs. Day) turned our classroom into a rainforest, and I do remember that Mrs. Ross let me skip two weeks of class to go to Europe. And the one thing that people always ask is, “Where are you from?” Thankfully, because of an amazing group of teachers, coaches, and mentors, I have a pretty cool story to tell.
A native of Jackson, Jon Mark Walls is a social entrepreneur, lecturer, and speechwriter who is driven by the idea that better communication can lead to better politics. Having worked for the United Nations as well as various governments and NGOs, he co-founded GovFaces which aimed to improve interactive communication between citizens and representatives. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, Jon Mark has sought to blend traditional communications approaches with new technologies and develop ways of delivering ideas across all levels of society.