“We hear it all the time: we just can’t afford it. Let me tell you something. We can afford whatever we want to afford.”
Thank you, Mr. Hughes. Let me just say: Jay Hughes represents the kind of leadership that this state badly needs. I encourage him to continue his efforts. And thank you to all for being here on a Saturday morning listening to an old run down politician like me. I thank you for your hospitality and warm greeting.
I was down at the courthouse in Pascagoula. As I came out I passed by two men sitting there outside, and I heard one of them say to the other, “Ain’t that William Winter?” and he said “Yeah I think so,” and the other said, “I thought he was dead!”
I said “I’m just politically dead.”
Thank you for what you have meant to my family and me, and to all of the people of the state of Mississippi, by performing the most important work- teaching our young people- preparing them for meaningful, constructive lives. There’s nothing more important than that.
My wife and I have three daughters- all a product of the public schools in Mississippi. They went through all the disruption of Brown vs. Board and integration, but they came out so much better prepared than so many kids that came out of private school. They’ve all been successful. Not just in a formal way, but in the relationships they established there. That is so important in a state and country like ours. With all of the fascinating multi-racial, multi-cultural experiences. We are a better state- don’t let anybody kid you- we are a better state for being able to weave together all this diversity.
Thank you for being there where it counts- in the classroom.
Let me also tell you about my grandchildren. We have five grandchildren, all of them a product of the public schools of Mississippi: Oxford and McComb. Let me tell you about those two in McComb. They started out in Jackson, then had to move to McComb. Their father put them in private schools, but they asked to go to McComb Public Schools, because they said they felt they would get a better education there. Both are doctors now. They are doing exceedingly well because of the education they got in the public schools of Mississippi. So I thank you.
Now we have four great-grandchildren. My wife and I owe you, the teachers, so much, for seeing to it that our children lead productive lives. What is more important than that?
I’m a product of a teacher’s background. My mother taught school in Mississippi over a period of forty years. She taught in the public schools. She was one of six sister. Those six ladies taught a total of 145 years in the public schools. I grew up literally worshipping teachers. Whatever success I’ve had has been based on the teachers up there in Grenada, Mississippi.
I think all of us can look back and see what influence teachers had over our lives. I can still remember Mrs. Turner, my teacher in Durant who made all the difference in the world. She taught me that I didn’t have to be defined by the circumstances of where I lived. I could aspire to do whatever I wanted to do with my life. I graduated in 1940, but since that time, I have had an award given to the student with the highest GPA who also participates in athletics. It’s the Estelle Turner Award.
These teachers have changed my life and allowed me to embrace opportunities that I would not have been aware of. Thank you for all of that.
And also let me say this: I’m up here talking, using words. And words are good, but words by themselves have to be accompanied by attitude and by action. And we have not followed the well meaning expressions of support and appreciation for you, the teachers, in an adequate way. The teaching profession, as far as I’m concerned, is the most important profession in our society. But it does not bring with it the recognition, both in terms of the respect that teachers get and the financial rewards that have not been made available to teachers. The teaching profession must be able to attract the very best young people we have, and we must reward them with financial results handed out to folks like me- doctors, lawyers, or whatever. The teaching profession needs to be on that same level. That’s how we are ultimately going to solve the problem of having young people come into the teaching profession.
Our oldest daughter, who graduated from Murrah High School here in Jackson, she started out as a teacher. She had a certification as a special education teacher. She taught for three years, then came to me and said, “You know, I think I want to be a lawyer.” I didn’t discourage her, but she said, “I just don’t see the influence and rewards.” And she became a lawyer, not a teacher. I want us to get the teaching profession to where you don’t have to go up and beg the legislature for support.
This is an attitude that we have to spread across the state that politicians will understand and respond.
We are on the defensive. Public education is on the defensive. We have to do whatever is necessary to provide the political base to make sure public education is rewarded as it should be.
We hear it all the time: we just can’t afford it. Let me tell you something. We can afford whatever we want to afford.
I’m a big football fan. But if we can pay a football coach three or four million dollars a year, surely we can pay teachers a higher salary base than we do right now. I find it hard to express my disillusionment with our sense of values. We talk about Mississippi being such a poor state. It’s not. It’s a lot richer state than it was when I came along, and it’s a lot richer because of the quality school system. But it’s not going to be better until we get our education investments up higher than we do now.
My friend Gray unfortunately passed away, but Gray said, “These opponents say we just keep saying we throw too much money at education. How do they say that? We’ve never tried doing that! Let’s try raising our per pupil spending to the national average.” We are never going to get them up to the national average until we do that.
My message to you is simply this: Don’t underestimate what your influence is, if you stick together and speak as one voice, and let the public officials know how important public education is, and involve the business community. And let education be the #1 issue in every political campaign. That’s how we did it in 1980.
Don’t let anybody intimidate you about expressing your views on that. You have more influence than you realize, and you must express it the most visible way possible. And that is at the ballot box.
Let me conclude these remarks this way: When I was governor, every year we would gather here in Jackson, all of the valedictorians of the public schools. We’d have a dinner, a speaker, a program. That was one of the best things we did. Every year we would have a nationally recognized person to come speak to that group. The first year we had Dr. Walter Massey come. At that time he was the president of the University of Chicago. He spent the night at the Governor’s Mansion with us, and I stayed up talking to him. I said, “How is it that you, a poor African American growing up in Hattiesburg, were able to achieve all you achieved?” And he said, “I had a teacher there at Rowan High School. She told him as Mrs. Turner told me at Grenada “You can aspire to be whatever you want to be. And you can be whatever you want to be, with a good education.”
The next year we had as a speaker, Colonel Don Peterson from Winona. He was a colonel in the Air Force. He had been an astronaut. He regaled the crowd with his stories. He, too, spent the night at the Governor’s Mansion. I said to him, “How have you achieved everything you’ve achieved?” He said, “There at Winona High School, I had a teacher who inspired me to go beyond my normal aspirations. I owe everything to her.”
Two great leaders, told me on two different occasions, that they owe everything to teachers. And that’s who you are. Despite your discouragement and lack of recognition, you have the key to be the most important person in the lives of these people you teach. What is more important than that? What is more rewarding than that? What is more important for us who live in this state, than to support you and your efforts?
There are those who are cynical and say this country is going to Hell. I don’t agree with that. I don’t care what Donald Trump says. I see too many young people with stars in their eyes. So let me tell you again how much I appreciate you and your efforts.
Thank you for what you have done for me and my family. Thank you for letting me join you today.
(Transcribed by MSEdBlog’s James Comans.)