Guest Column: Remembering Shirley Scott


By Ted Jackson

Contributing columnist

On April 15 the community gathered to celebrate the life of Shirley Scott, long-time columnist for the Urbana Daily Citizen. Not knowing what kind of ceremony would take place, I penned the following words prior. I thought the community might like to read my recollections of being her student, friend and colleague.

Graham High School, fall of 1996. Everyone was talking about Dolly, the genetically-engineered sheep. I was an anxious freshman, overwhelmed by the chaos of the hallway, lockers slamming, the smells and sounds of other teenagers. My immediate fear was that this would just be more junior high.

I knew I was different from the other boys, too, which made the whole situation even weirder. My secret superpower in dealing with high school, though, was that I was secretly excited about being there. For one, I’d be learning a language. I often walked into Ms. Scott’s classroom – this happened with a handful of other teachers – and felt that everything would be OK. There would always be German again tomorrow. And it wasn’t because taking German was all smiles and sunshine: she could be very strict. She loved all her students, even the problematic ones, and even the ones who would never set foot in her classroom or would perhaps have her only for home room. I was finally learning German, and I was there. For. It.

What I most remember from class were the stories she told us about the experiences she’d had in Germany. Alumni talk about how the exchange program changed us, but the exchange program changed her, too. German was never just a language that one was learning from a book. People live, love, cry, sing and laugh in German.

Ms. Scott would playfully threaten us with singing if we didn’t get our behavior under wraps. Sometimes, though, we’d hear her sing in class despite our best efforts … “Que sera, sera, whatever will be will be. The future’s not ours to see, que sera sera.”

I worked up the courage to ask if she needed help with the yearbook, which was my humble way of telling her I wanted to be on the yearbook staff. I think I was less interested in the journalistic aspect of putting together a yearbook than I was having an advisor that I knew would make the experience fun and educational. Working on layout and typesetting connected me to a Sunday afternoon job at The Booster typesetting advertisements.

In Summer 1997 we set off to Germany, stopping first in Munich for a few days before meeting our exchange partners. Ms. Scott had us as organized as a group of 16-year-olds could be. The trip wasn’t without problems, though – my friend Kelly left her passport in the seat back pocket when disembarking in Chicago. The plane flew on to Los Angeles with the precious travel document. Ms. Scott put Mr. Wurth, Nathan S., and I in charge of getting where we needed to go. She stayed behind with Kelly to sort things out and the two of them caught up with us after a few days. Kelly must have been dying inside from embarrassment, but Shirley was understanding and keeping true to herself, she was never cross when an honest mistake like this happened.

That trip was life-changing for me. I’d never been overseas and I was ready like I’d never been ready for anything else. As I sat at the table with my exchange family I simply couldn’t believe that I was listening to and even partially understanding native German speakers. I couldn’t believe that I was going to school in Germany, even if for only a week. I couldn’t believe that I was in Europe. I couldn’t believe my exchange partner, Philipp, also played piano. I quickly fell in love with it all. I must have taken seven or eight rolls of snapshots. I was deeply sad after we came home and I had to go back to the usual routine. But school started again and the next year of school was even better than the last. I’d picked up so much while I was there and I was eager to learn the book version of the real German I’d absorbed. That fall my family hosted a second German student from Altenhagen, Frederike.

Fast forward to my senior year. The rigidity with which Ms. Scott governed German 1 had long since eased and by that fall was replaced with a friendly collegiality. It felt like we were all in this together. The upcoming AP exam would be difficult. She did her best to lead us through preparing for that test. At times she even learned new material alongside us. We helped her pilot a new textbook that year. The five or so of us who remained in the German program pulled our desks up close to hers and dug in, much like we did when we were working on layouts for the yearbook after school.

Once graduation day was past, she would tell us to no longer address her as Frau Scott, but as Shirley. That was a proud moment – to realize I’d become an adult, one of her peers. Like with some of the other great teachers at Graham High, I felt I’d become friends with adults whom I truly respected and admired.

In college I majored in German and came back to Shirley’s classroom a few times to work with her AP students as they prepared for their exams. In 2000, my parents and I were chaperones on one of the final exchange trips as my brother Paul was one of the students. I stayed with Frederike’s family and we’ve remained close ever since, exchanging care packages and visits through the years.

After college it seemed natural to keep going with German, so I applied and went to graduate school. Once I’d started teaching German to college students, I remembered her classroom management skills when dealing with a problem student. (And believe me, there are many problem students, at large research universities and community colleges alike!) Thinking about her stories, I often told my own to help students engage with the somewhat boring required textbook. I remembered the light she brought to me, and I was more than happy to pass that light on to others. The day I printed a copy of my dissertation and mailed it to Shirley is another moment that stands out in my mind. Fellow students and I joked that nobody would ever read our dissertations, but I could tell that she’d read mine beginning to end by the questions she asked in a subsequent phone call.

So dear Shirley, what more can I write about you that hasn’t already been said by your kindness, the stories we share, and the wonderful person you were? I know you are out there keeping watch over us. The connections you helped all of us make will outlive those of us who survive you. I’m confident your spirit will be with us at least as long as I’m alive, if not much, much longer.


Ted Jackson is a 1999 graduate of Graham High School, a 2003 graduate of Wittenberg University, and earned his PhD from Washington University in St. Louis in 2010. He works as an administrative manager for a translation agency in Chicago.

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