- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

PRINCE GEORGE, Va. (AP) - It was 1967. The Vietnam War was raging, college campuses were hotbeds of unrest and one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in American history was taking shape.

It was also the year that a 22-year-old named Louise Thornton took a job teaching history and government at Prince George High School.

Nearly a half-century later, Thornton, 71, is still there plugging away in the classroom.

“I would just miss the young people,” Thornton, sitting in class, said earlier this month. “It’s going to be absolutely the hardest thing, saying goodbye to this school.”

She says this despite telling school administrators earlier this school year that she would be back next year to begin her sixth decade working in a classroom.

Thornton has been teaching for 50 years, a noteworthy feat at a time when school districts are having difficulty retaining personnel. And she brings the same passion and energy she’s had since the Johnson administration.

That passion for teaching government has not only imparted in thousands of students what she hopes is a greater appreciation and respect for how our government works, but also has made an immediate impact on all county students.

Two of her former pupils - Kevin S. Foster and Reeve E. Ashcraft - sit on the county’s School Board and one is a colleague at Prince George High School.

Mike Nelson started in the school’s social studies department in 1997 when Thornton was already the department’s chair, and people were wondering if she was about to retire.

Nelson, now the high school’s principal, remembers Thornton caring for new teachers, which she still does, and helping veteran teachers “keep the fire lit.”

“The burnout level for teachers now is pretty high,” he said. “You see a lot of people go into education - they’re great, but then one to two years, three years, they’re moving on to some different career. To have anyone who stays in education 30 years is amazing. But for someone to go 20 years beyond that - there’s no word for that.”

As Thornton looks back on working in the classroom for 50 years, she sees students today as more aware of the world around them than when she started.

In the beginning, newspapers and the evening news were the main source of information. Today, students turn to online sources, social media and cable news to stay informed.

But increasingly, students are working more after school, getting home late and coming to school tired, often without doing homework, she said.

“Overall, I don’t know that young people change all that much,” she said. “They change in terms of their likes and dislikes, of course, and social media has changed things, but, basically, aren’t young people the same?”

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As remarkable as her experience teaching in Prince George has been, it might never have happened if it weren’t for a dentist who asked the then-recent graduate of the College of William & Mary a simple question.

She was in the dentist’s chair when he asked if she’d ever considered teaching in Prince George County.

Thornton grew up in Sussex County, and all she knew about Prince George was that it was adjacent to where she’d grown up and that recently the county had been told federal funding would be cut off if schools weren’t integrated.

She was open to the idea.

The first year - 1966 - she taught the sixth grade at L.L. Beazley Elementary School. There were 10 sections of the sixth grade that school year, and all 10 teachers were in their first year, she said.

The summer after that, Thornton was applying to enter a master’s program at William & Mary. She called a Prince George assistant superintendent, who also happened to be from Sussex, and asked for a recommendation.

The assistant superintendent, to her surprise, asked if she wanted to move to the high school.

“I’ve been here ever since,” she said.

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Thornton began teaching history and government at Prince George High in the fall of 1967.

Her first year at the school was the first time U.S. casualties in Vietnam surpassed 10,000 - 11,363. The following year would be the deadliest of the war with 16,899 casualties.

Despite much upheaval across the country over the war, she doesn’t remember too much antagonism over Vietnam. That’s mostly because of the large military presence that Fort Lee brought to the county.

As for the civil rights movement, the school was already integrated and she doesn’t remember any animosity between the races. The one day she taught a segregated class was the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., and black students stayed home.

Although Thornton’s degree was in history, she soon tired of teaching the subject.

When the opportunity arose to focus on teaching government, Thornton was thrilled.

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One of the great joys she takes from teaching government is helping students discover a love of politics and getting them actively involved.

For about 20 years, she has taken students to New York to participate in the Model U.N., a United Nations program. One former student wound up as a delegate at the 1992 Republican convention.

Thornton teaches both Advanced Placement students and collaborative inclusion classes.

“Not only does she work with the top, best, strongest students we have, but she also teaches government to some of our weakest students, students with disabilities, students who are really struggling but she connects with all of them,” Nelson said.

“Doing that at the 50-year stage is impressive. There are teachers that are great working with students with special needs, and there are teachers great at working with gifted students. But to have someone who excels with both groups and to have done it for so long, remarkable is too weak a word for it.”

Thornton said her deep love for politics comes from her grandfather, a member of the Sussex County Board of Supervisors for more than 40 years.

She remembers watching King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 together with him. Her grandfather, a conservative man born in the segregated South, told her afterward that it was one of the best speeches he’d ever heard. A year later, they watched Barry Goldwater accept the Republican nomination and Richard Nixon speak in support of his candidacy.

As for the inspiration to teach, that came from her mother, who was a teacher.

Thornton would play school as a child, bringing her books home and setting up a classroom.

Funny as it might sound now, one reason she entered teaching was because it seemed the type of profession in which, once she was married, she could work and be home in time to take care of children.

“But you see, I never got married. My children are four-legged,” Thornton said. “I was led in the right direction because these young people are my family. And every year I get five families because I have five classes.

“I’m glad I’m a teacher. Not to say I haven’t had difficult experiences, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com


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