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Sheriff’s students were the lucky ones

Clearly one of the most memorable — and remembered — teachers in Vicksburg is Mr. Walter Sheriff. He’s frequently seen on a front porch at the corner of First North and Main in animated conversation with former students driving by. They are obviously delighted to see him and be remembered by name.

And they gathered recently at Vicksburg High School to take part in a photo-shoot honoring him and rejoicing in their memories of him 20 or more years ago. Now, early middle-aged themselves, and established in families and careers, they dressed up and came out on a Saturday morning to reclaim desks in a classroom they once occupied and he, quite simply, had owned.

They remembered his love of the language and his dazzling displays of it which even today can convince you, if you’re not careful, that properly-accented genuine gibberish is nothing but flawless French. They laugh out loud at his well-known introductions of the “Sheriff of Warren County” — which he is, of course, but is not. They recall his classes in Shakespeare and grammar and seek him to speak at reunions.

Mr. Sheriff has serious concerns, of course, just as he always has. He’s worried that the deficit of black male teachers is growing, and not much noted or cared about.

He worries that the feminization of early-education is reducing both the numbers and influence of black men. He worries that the proper use of language is no longer the hallmark of an educated person, nor even a requirement for teaching.

And most of his post-retirement effort has centered in the need for higher education and recruitment for his beloved Alcorn.

But even setting all this aside, the uniqueness of his appeal and success, not to mention his legacy, is his rare combination of competence and personality.

His students liked him, looked forward to his classes, and learned from him. They saw loyalty, effort and generosity in him. They saw extended interests in him in things like music and plays.

They graduated, but kept on coming to him for help with résumés. They saw a difference in him. I doubt if any student he’s had has seen him throw a football or basketball. But they’ve seen him in an English classroom, and they’ve seen his love of this language and his love for teaching it.

Mr. Sheriff’s whole professional life is an enviable accomplishment.

Years ago I remember reading a book about teachers called “Masters.” I don’t remember who wrote it. But somewhere in there the author, or perhaps a reviewer, suggested that for all of the years that all of us spend in school, we are blessed to have two, maybe three “good” teachers; lucky if we have one “great” one.

The students who gathered on a Saturday morning to honor their teacher, Mr. Sheriff, were among the lucky ones.

For all the determined planning and effort that went into their education, they were the lucky ones.

In the end, they were just plain lucky.

Yolande Robbins is a community correspondent for The Vicksburg Post. You may reach her at yolanderobbins@fastmail.com.