Short Attention Span, Long Memory

The website security question was innocent enough. “Who was your favorite teacher?”

No hesitation.

Jimmie Poe.

Fifth grade, South Pleasant Valley Elementary, Wichita, 1967-68.

Mr. Poe was a proud graduate of Emporia State University (class of ‘60), back when it was a renowned teachers college. So he’d have only been in his late 20’s when I had him.

With a close-cropped crewcut, black horn-rims, short-sleeved white dress shirts and era-reminiscent skinny neckties, Mr. Poe was my first male teacher. My natural kid default position of fear and trepidation about the notion of a man for a teacher was soon to give way to trust and admiration.

The year before, our class was traumatized... impacted... blindsided... pick your verb, by the mid-year death of our fourth grade teacher. Come back from Christmas vacation and no Mrs. Balzer.

Ever again.

So, by fifth grade, maybe we were ready for some stability and predictability.

Ten-year old boys will be boys and ten-year old girls will be girls. Clusters of short attention spans run head-on into evolving social skills. Merriment and disorder ensues.

Mr. Poe once again.jpg

Mr. Poe had a booming voice. It wasn’t loud as much as it was the practiced elevated volume required when you spend your days with 30-odd ten-year olds doing what comes naturally.

“Fifth graders, this is not a meeting of the Ladies’ Aid Society..!”

We scratched our heads over that one until we asked our parents. For Halloween, a handful of us donned flowered dresses, open-toed heels and old lady hats. Then proudly trooped to school together beneath a homemade banner reading, “Ladies’ Aid Society.”

When Mr. Poe caught sight of us, his laughter echoed down the SPV halls.

Made our short attention span, social skill evolving day.

It was the era of manned space travel. Mr. Poe quizzed us on the material used to coat the bottom of the capsule for re-entry.

After dozens of wrong answers, Randy Weidner cocked his head to one side, paused a beat and reflected aloud, “It wouldn’t be teflon?”

Jimmie Poe was overjoyed. He had succeeded at teaching us that scientific breakthroughs in the space program had practical, everyday benefit in the Land of Baloney on White with Miracle Whip.


One small step for Randy Weidner. One giant leap for the SPV fifth grade.

As the name implies, South Pleasant Valley was linear and orderly. Two wings pointing west. Two classrooms, two teachers for each grade, first through sixth. Then we would matriculate next door to Pleasant Valley Junior High.

It was the summer of love in San Francisco, but even in Wichita, the times, they were-a-changin.’ That year, Jaime McDuff gained revered status as the first kid in our class to grow his hair long and quote Jim Morrison. Within two years we were all doing it.

Break on through to the other side.

When I Googled Mr. Poe, I found a 2002 ESU teachers college newsletter which listed him as retiring after 43 years teaching the fifth grade. Can you imagine? The newsletter said two years earlier, he was asked to give the commencement address at his alma mater, Norwich High in Kingman County.

Woulda loved to have been in the gym that night. Not only to hear him speak one more time, but to stand and applaud when he was done.

UPDATE: Mr. Poe died in 2015. His daughters had seen this blog entry and tracked me down. They asked me to represent all the 5th graders whose lives Mr. Poe touched and offer a eulogy at his funeral services in Ark City. It was my honor.