When a young teacher took time to explain the lyrics of a song to a student, it created a lasting memory.
Julie Drake is that math teacher. She has held forth from the same classroom at Hagerstown Jr.-Sr. High School for 42 years. Now, upon retiring, she is departing Room 212.
Those who know Dan Davis Jr. — the former seventh grade student — know him as a financial adviser by day who performs with a band on nights and weekends. They might find it hard to imagine that he wouldn’t know the meaning behind the lyrics. But, as Davis tells it, that was the case in 1981 when he met the new junior high algebra teacher.
Don Henley had just released his new hit song, “Dirty Laundry.” Davis liked it but, as a naive seventh grader, thought maybe it had something to do with real laundry.
“I didn’t get the song. She had the radio on and was really digging it,” Davis said, laughing at the memory. “She had to explain it to me, so that day, the lesson from the algebra teacher wasn’t math but about English.”
Davis’s memories of Drake span from her first year at HHS to his present dealings with her in his role as Nettle Creek School Corporation’s school board president.
Of his days as a student: “I think we all respected her because she respected us first. When a teacher gives you that, you’ve got to give it back.”
Sarah Masters is another of Drake’s early students. “When I was in junior high (1986-87), she was my most fabulous math teacher I have ever had,” Masters wrote. “I was inspired to become a teacher because of her.”
Masters and Drake have been teaching in adjoining rooms. Drake says her former student has become “my sounding board and friend!”
Julie Arnold, a teacher for 33 years who is now the high school guidance counselor, says Drake is the last of her junior high teachers who is still teaching at HHS. Arnold popped in during our interview to say Drake is the school system’s matriarch.
“(B)ut she could also be called the wise woman of our village,” Arnold wrote later in an email. “She is levelheaded and has been a great sounding board for me when times have gotten a little crazy, as I’m sure she has been for others.”
Drake moved into Room 212 in 1981. She recalls many of the teachers who started at about the same time became like family, which is a large part of the reason she stayed there.
Growing up in Shelbyville, she had become acquainted with Chuck Kinsey, a teacher there who became athletic director at HHS. After she earned a bachelor’s degree in education, she married Darrell Drake, whose brother David had married her sister, Teresa, two years earlier. The Drake family farm was near Hagerstown and she needed a job. She applied to HHS. When Kinsey saw her name on a list of applicants, he recommended hiring her. Pleased to be offered a job only a week after marriage, she accepted ecstatically.
Drake, who knew before she turned 8 that she wanted to be a teacher, said, “I never felt like this was a job. I always loved coming to work.”
Davis recalls Drake from her first year. “She was a very young teacher. She had very high expectations for us but she cared about each kid, from when she started to the very end.”
Masters said, “She is that teacher that you wanted her to be proud of you.”
For her part, Drake says she’s been able to keep teaching for more than four decades because, “Every year is different. I tell the kids on the first day, ‘I’m just going to try to make math something you’ll use every day.’”
She points out that if they cook, they use fractions. If they do welding, they use fractions. And algebra teaches them how to be organized. She makes students show their work “so they can see the steps that it takes to get to the answer.”
When Drake arrived at HHS, she took on other duties, serving as volleyball coach for her first eight seasons, as a JV girls basketball coach in 1981-82 and assistant cheer coach in the 1980s. She has served as eighth-grade class sponsor since the 1980s. She served two years as cheer coach for Lincoln High School.
She’s been selected as the corporation’s Teacher of the Year twice, in 2011 and 2019. This year, Delaney Oliger chose to honor her in the I-STAR program, in which seniors write about the teacher who has meant the most to them in their school career.
But her role in another position has meant a lot to the grown-up Davis. For more than 20 years, she has been part of the team of teachers who negotiate contracts with the Nettle Creek School Corporation. Davis has been on the school board negotiating team for five years, saying that he’s seen relationships between teachers and board go from bad to very good, and crediting Drake for having a large influence in that.
“She has been a big part of ‘taking one for the team’,” Davis said. She and other teacher negotiators have realized that across-the-board percentage pay raises have the effect of widening the pay gap between long-serving teachers and newcomers. Her attitude, Davis said, has been that “We (veteran teachers) have got to take less so that younger persons could get more.”
That, he said, has contributed to making Nettle Creek a place where young teachers want to be hired. “She is very unselfish and has made decisions that benefit our system.”
Drake takes satisfaction in seeing students do well. “My reward is to think that I’ve made a difference in a kid’s life,” she said. Evidence comes in the form of notes, perhaps a dozen a year, from students who tell her that she made math easier to understand.
Masters wrote, “Now that I am a teacher, I love being able to go to work with her every day. She has taught me how to be a caring teacher all the way to the end of my career. She has been doing this for 42 years and still shows up with a smile. I want that. I wish her the very best in her retirement and I will miss her.”
Over the decades, students have changed, especially since the advent of the internet and portable computers and cellphones, Drake laments. It’s much easier for students to look up answers on their devices. She and the school are struggling with how to better keep students off their cellphones during the school day.
“But you still have a lot of good kids,” she said.
She has seen other changes as well, including having police serve as school resource officers in the school. When she started at HHS, classrooms didn’t have doors that closed. Those were added just a few years ago in response to the increasing national frequency of school shootings and other violence.
Her plans for life after retirement focus mostly on family.
“My husband’s family are farmers. There are lots of little jobs there I can pick up on. And I love being gram — we have a 15-month-old granddaughter,” said Drake.
She and her husband, Darrell, farm, along with his brother David Drake and his wife Teresa; another brother, Dean Drake; and their nephew, Ryan Drake. Darrell and Julie’s daughter, Sarah, is married to Jake Holt, and they are parents of the granddaughter, Julianne. They live not far from Julie and Darrell.
Asked if she thinks she will miss going back to school in the fall, she said no. Substitute teaching is out of the question, too, Drake says, calling it, “One of the hardest jobs there is.”
“I’ll probably still get up at 5:30 or 6 because we live on the farm,” she said. “But it might be closer to 6:30.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 7 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.