When Reed Patterson began his teaching career in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had just declared his War on Poverty. The Vietnam War was escalating. Three civil-rights workers turned up dead in Mississippi, horrifying the nation and spurring passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act. In popular culture, a group of mop-headed English musicians named the Beatles were taking America by storm.
Inside Patterson’s science classroom, female students wore conservative skirts and blouses. Boys made sure their hair was cropped short enough that it did not brush their ears. Patterson and his fellow teachers were issued paddles to ensure classroom discipline.
Flash forward 50 years, and Patterson’s modern Lexington High School classroom, and society itself, seem far more diverse and far more clamorous. But as he prepares to retire June 8 in the midst of the Midlands commencement season, Patterson takes the long view.
“For an old teacher like myself, you to have to stay to the task,” said Patterson, who turned 70 this year.
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He is grateful for the children who have passed through his classrooms, the academic stars as well as those who struggle, saying, “I have faith that those children who are troubled will find a way to find success.”
In his old-fashioned white shirt and tie, Patterson exudes decorum mixed with a heavy dose of wry humor.
“I appreciate the 90 percent who are quiet,” he said on Friday as he prepared his 9th-grade biology students for their computerized end-of-course exam. “But it is the babblers who have been going since January.”
He pulled out a clothespin from his drawer: “Could you just take a clothespin and do this?” he asked his class, pursing his lips together.
He has found in his five decades of teaching some dramatic changes in modern education but also some eternal verities.
There have always been class cut-ups – he calls them “catalysts” in mischief – and there are always those students who will gain traction and go out ready to tackle the world. He still wishes character and integrity would be taught in the classroom.
“To teach for nearly a half-century you have to have longevity and good health,” said Patterson, who spent 30 years in Georgia’s public schools and nearly 20 in Lexington 1. “And you‘ve got to love the kids even though they are catalysts.”
Patterson has carried around a cartoon that sums up his view on the transformation of American education.
On the left side of the cartoon, labeled 1969, parents scream to their trembling kid, “What’s up with those grades!!” as a prim teacher looks on. The right side, labeled 2009, features the parents shouting the same question at the teacher while a smiling student looks on.
“Our society has changed,” said Patterson. “No. 1 is the distraction in schools. The social media is so dominant in their lives.”
Each of his students carries a district-issued iPad, and often they do get distracted by Angry Birds and other games that are as readily accessible as the constant beep from their cellphones. But on this Friday, the technology serves a purpose as they pull out the tablets to photograph an answer sheet for weekend study.
Even when his college-prep students drive him crazy, when some rack up Fs when he knows they understand the workings of the atom and the properties of mitochondria, Patterson said he has operated during his half-century with an eye toward kindness. He hopes that the character trait will rub off on his charges as they tackle the mysteries of the sciences.
“I’m getting on it, Mr. Patterson,” Louie Lynch, 15, called out as students made their way to the high school’s Learning Commons, which in Patterson’s early teaching days was known simply as the library. “Mainly, because I don’t want to take biology with another teacher.”
This is Lynch’s second time around with Patterson, who he described as a good teacher. “He’s cool. Weird. I like him.”
“He’s different,” said Jake Bunton, 15, who marvels at his teacher’s long-staying power. “He has been teaching as long as my dad has been alive.”
Lexington High principal Melissa Rawl said Patterson has staying power because he has always gone the extra mile to entertain and enliven his classes.
“Reed is really a kid at heart, and I think that is why he has stayed in it as long as he has,” Rawl said. “He does all these extra things. The kids know he cares.”
Rawl said Patterson taught science to her own son, who is grown and expecting his first child.
Patterson plans some post-retirement travel with his wife, Patty, a retired language-arts teacher who substitutes regularly at Lexington High.
One of their planned adventures will be to Houston when their oldest child, Emily Vera, a speech pathologist, delivers their first grandchild later this summer. He has two grown sons, Zade, a voice actor, and Ted, a newly minted graduate of Winthrop University who works at Carowinds.
The couple love to fish and are avid birders, hobbies they hope to indulge when Patterson packs away his science books for good.
And next August, when the school doors open again?
He smiled. “The first day of school I will probably go to the flagpole and say, “Are you starting without me?’”