Oklahoma Teacher Makes Texas Students So Much More
PARIS, Texas - A man who was named Oklahoma teacher of the year said he had no choice but to take his talents to Texas.
It all fits now in a plastic tub.
"And to see the President of the United States about ready to welcome me," he said.
That magic September day 19 years ago when Stephen Smallwood reached the pinnacle.
"That's a moment, that's a moment."
Oklahoma's teacher of the year for 1996.
"Look, that was the days they put the sashes on the men. And I had to wear it to the rodeo, can you believe that?" he said.
Stephen Smallwood was destined to wear that sash. To be a teacher. His lineage frames the halls of Rattan High School. Stephen, Class of '66.
His dad was the principal. Five brothers and sisters came after. All became teachers. All saw something in kids' potential.
"Give them a road map, show them how to get there and get out of the way."
After 27 years of guiding Oklahoma students in Perry, Lawton and Broken Bow, in debate, speech and theater, English, geography and journalism, Stephen began looking at retirement. But after all those years, his salary maxed out at a paltry 26-thousand dollars, and he remembers the stark wake-up call promised by Oklahoma's miserly teacher pay and retirement benefits.
“If I retire right now, that I'm only gonna be taking home a little more than a thousand dollars a month, well you can't buy a car or pay a house or have any land or clothes or eat or anything on a thousand dollars a month.”
And so, reluctantly, Stephen knew the time had come to take a different route to work. Retired in Oklahoma, he pointed his truck south. And when Oklahoma's one-time Teacher of the Year crossed the Red River, he got a raise.
For ten more years, Stephen drove to North Lamar High School in Paris, Texas, so that he might have some financial peace-of-mind. And less than a year after he retired in Texas, we followed him back, to a welcome that speaks of what Oklahoma lost.
"Does everybody get this kind of welcome? What made him a good teacher?" He asked. "Everything. Everything? What didn't make him a great teacher? He's the perfect teacher. I mean I never had him in class and he helped me more than anyone I've ever had."
It broke Stephen's heart to cross the Red River.
"What happened when I had to leave Oklahoma in order to make a better living was that I left my heart here, I swore that I would never give my heart away to any other kids except Oklahoma kids and that I guess if anything happened when I drove across the state line, that did."
But look at the legacy, played out in hugs, he left after a decade in Texas. A state line's invisible. This kind of respect isn't.
Hard to pull from a classroom, Stephen still teaches an evening class at Eastern Oklahoma State College's Antlers campus for high schoolers earning college credit.