Reflections on Teaching

Mel Oakes

(Photo by Pat Oakes)


A few years ago the University of Texas Academy of Distinguished Teachers asked members to write an article about their teaching, There were no restrictions on what we could write. I recently discovered my article and thought I would include it here with a few photos. I recognize that it will be of little interest to most who visit this site.

My father, Fredrick Franklin Oakes, was a teacher, but he did not know it. Had he been aware of it, this avenue of employment would have evaded him. With only a third grade education, certification would not have come easily, even in his much-loved Mississippi. He enjoyed conveying information and ideas; he did this through his story telling. Each night following a long day with his auto parts salvage business (“junkyard” to my three brothers, my sister and me) we would gather for his stories. These included folklore, fanciful tales he fabricated, but more often they were greatly embroidered stories of some event in his life. The stories, told with much expression, joy and animation, served many purposes. Probably foremost was the need to entertain the “wild bunch” so our mother could get some much deserved rest. Secondly, he wished to teach us some lesson for life or convey something he had learned in his work or his nightly reading. He clearly desired that we have some knowledge and appreciation of his history, his(our) family and the vastly different conditions under which he was raised. There were many stories that rivaled Huck Finn but were set instead on the Yazoo River, a tributary of the Mississippi, in a “town” called Harworth. I recently found this town through the Internet on a map of “Mississippi Towns Which No Longer Exist,” negating a long held suspicion of mine. After teaching for a few years I realized that the telling of these stories entertained my father! He was at his best when he had an attentive audience. No matter how tiring and demanding his day was, he would never beg off when we pleaded for a story. Rest nor sleep simply did not revive him the way this “performance” did. My father never took attendance-- he didn’t need to.

In thinking over the question posed for this series “Why I Teach?,” the answer is clear. I am my father’s child and with the help of many I got “certified.” There were distractions. My father loved sports and so did I. He formed a baseball team of neighborhood boys when I was nine, long before Little League. We competed as a team until I was nearly twenty. In his role as coach, my father instructed all of us in the fundamentals. He was extremely patient with us, even those who abused his patience. He believed it was worth it. Late in his life, tributes from these very same young men confirmed the value of his dedication. Many of these men were pallbearers at his funeral.

While in high school, I pursued sports, girls, and math and avoided the only science course offered in the school. I was however hounded by one teacher, who was determined that the tradition in the community of not attending college would not extend to me and several of my classmates. Our English teacher, Maude Franklin (left), relentlessly, with little thanks at the time, surrounded us with grammar, wonderful prose, poetry, plays, and, despite my wife’s contention to the contrary, spelling. Her encouragement was pivotal in my decision to continue school following graduation.

Armed with this arsenal and some basic mathematics, I attended Hinds Junior College in Raymond, MS, to play basketball and baseball and to prepare for a career as a coach. There I encountered another teacher who was not to be denied.


Lurline Stewart (right) taught mathematics and it was her life. She instructed all students, however she reserved her heavy artillery for those she believed might “deserve” a career in math or science. Recognizing the meager background of most of her students, she spent many extra hours each week filling in the holes and bridging the gaps. It was in her class that I learned the importance of classroom participation. We had to enter her classes prepared to participate; sleep was not an option. Never a day passed that I didn’t learn something. Admittedly, we only had about 35 or so students in the classes, so it was quite easy for her to include all of us. The results of her dedication were that we made up the lost time and were quite ready to see what a university would have to offer. Between the math courses and a physics course, it was clear to me that I wished to be a physicist.


Following two years at Louisiana State University where I earned a B.S. degree in physics, I moved to Florida State University for graduate work. It was there that I met a superb teacher who later became my Ph.D. supervisor. Professor Edward Desloge (right) had planned to be a priest but wildly missed the mark by acquiring a lovely wife and seemingly uncountable children. His love of teaching was evident to all. His lectures demonstrated hours of preparation. What was special about the preparation was that it was done for the class. It was not enough that he understood a topic, it was equally important that the class would understand it. We were always given several ways of looking at an idea and strongly encouraged to ask questions. I realized in that class that his style entailed a risk: if the students understand the material, then you are more likely to get challenging questions, questions you may have to beg off till “next time.” This happened to Professor Desloge, though he was never embarrassed by it and took no steps to discourage such questions. The next time he always had the answer and carefully took us through his steps at arriving at this answer. His research and his teaching were very much intertwined; many of his papers seemed to grow out of something in his classes. He was always available to students for questions and advice. He clearly enjoyed his teaching as much as we did. It is clear to me now that my admiration for him and the way he did his job was critical in my decision to be a professor.

As I approached my first class at the University of Texas in 1965, I’m sure I would have told you that I had little teaching experience, that I would be starting with a clean slate, and I would have to learn by trial and error. This would have been wrong, oh so wrong. I had benefited from a very long-running drama filled with a cast of outstanding teachers, each generously contributing to what would become my own style. I shamelessly copied them with inadequate attribution. I deeply appreciate this opportunity to acknowledge them properly.