CULLMAN, Ala. – There are people around Cullman today who don’t know that St. Bernard Abbey’s school used to be a college, but Helen Glasscock knows. She graduated from there summa cum laude (“with highest honors”), and came back to teach there for 14 years. A few years after the college closed, following sojourns at Alabama State University and Wallace State Community College, she drove back onto the Abbey grounds as the newly-founded St. Bernard Prep School’s English teacher. Now, 35 years after she started her “new” job, and after 52 years in education, she’s looking for something else to do. After announcing her retirement, Glasscock was honored during St. Bernard’s 2019 commencement.
The Tribune sat down this week with Glasscock at her Cullman home not far from her beloved campus, where we got to enjoy both her hospitality and the beautiful flower beds she hopes to spend more time tending now.
How did it start?
Glasscock shared, “I started back to school in ‘62 and I did that- and this is what nobody has ever asked me, really: why did I start back to school, because I had three daughters already, and you know that’s a full-time job- but if you remember what was happening in the 60s, it was the women’s movement and that sort of thing.
“I thought that the best thing I could do for my daughters was to be educated myself, and to see that they could take care of themselves, and that they did not have to- and this sounds kind of crude- but they didn’t have to rely on a man for their livelihood. And, you know, it was a strong women’s rights movement and all that. And, thankfully, they have all three turned out quite successful.”
Glasscock’s three daughters are: Deborah- a registered dietician helping nursing homes across north Alabama improve the health of their residents, Mary- a longtime administrative staffer now retired from Wallace State and Melanie- a veterinarian and poultry science instructor at Wallace State.
Glasscock and her husband, Korean War veteran and former Birmingham steelworker Kenneth (See www.cullmantribune.com/2016/11/05/from-cullman-county-to-korea-veteran-has-stories-to-tell/) have three daughters, six grandchildren, 11 great grandchildren and one great-great grandson.
Coming back to St. Bernard
With a master’s degree in English from the University of Alabama, Glasscock was called back to the college in the fall of 1966 to help educate the increasing number of soldiers coming back from Vietnam with veterans’ benefits.
Said Glasscock, “If you remember, that was when we had numerous Vietnam veterans coming back, and they wanted to further their education with the G.I. Bill. And so, the college at that time, St. Bernard College, had an influx of those returning veterans. It swelled their enrollment, and so I was needed. And I enjoyed it very much.”
Glasscock remained on the college’s faculty until the college closed in 1980. After that, she spent a year teaching at Alabama State University in Montgomery, driving down to teach on Mondays and coming home on weekends. She enjoyed the job and the school, but not the distance which kept her away from home most of the time. After a year, she took a job at Wallace State.
In 1984, she was called back once more to St. Bernard Abbey, which was opening a new preparatory school. She would stay for the next 35 years, most of that as the institution’s senior English teacher.
“When the prep school first opened,” recalled Glasscock, “I was the English teacher. And then, you know, we didn’t have a graduating class the first year. And then the second year, I think, we went into the four grade levels. So it’s been an ongoing process.”
Aside from the college-to-prep-school shift, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen at St. Bernard?
Said Glasscock, “This was obvious, actually, before the college closed. The biggest thing I noticed back then, of course, the technology is overwhelming. But one of the biggest things I noticed before the college closed was, when I first started teaching, you could assume that most of the students had the same kind of background and had the same kind of training, and would know something of the story of Moses, would know something of the Red Sea- crossing the Red Sea. There was a basic bundle of knowledge that most people would have known about.
“But before the college ever closed, I suppose- and I don’t know what triggered this- it was probably television, maybe one thing, because I can remember our getting our first TV, and that sort of thing. That was one of the biggest changes I noticed when I was teaching on the college level: that you could not assume that every child, every adult I was teaching had the same kind of background as every other student in the classroom.”
Not only have changes in intellectual culture affected St. Bernard, but the school has also become an academic United Nations of sorts, its residential dormitories hosting students from around the world.
How do you adapt to a culturally wide-ranging international student body, especially as an English teacher?
Glasscock responded with a laugh, “Very patiently! But we always had support personnel. And because we were a smaller school, I never experienced that great a difficulty. In fact, it was just the opposite. One year, I remember, I had a little Chinese girl who came in- she was a sophomore. And he’s now Fr. Paschal, but he was in the class with her. He was very kind; he immediately (helped), because he had association with her outside the classroom, whereas I didn’t. When I gave an assignment, when I said something- she sat right behind him- and if she didn’t understand something, she would punch him on the shoulder, and he would explain to her what was going on.
“And, usually, the international students live in the dorm. I think that’s a great help, because they’re interchanging there with English-speaking people 24/7. So that’s one thing.
“And, of course, we had ESL classes. And Fr. Linus, the headmaster now, he’s very good with that sort of thing.”
What from St. Bernard’s past would you want every new student to know about their school?
Said Glasscock, “I think any student has to have a desire to learn. And they have to understand that St. Bernard is not the kind of school who necessarily is going to fit you for a job, and you walk out of there and be employable the next day, as a trade school would or Wallace would, because their mission is different from that.
“We had the motto ‘Mind, Body and Spirit.’ And so, our goal was to cultivate all that, to train all of that. And I have found I’ve very few problems actually teaching kids out there. A teacher has to respect the child, and I think the child, in turn, senses that.”
Finding her calling
Glasscock originally wanted to become a nurse and hoped to intend the Ida V. Moffatt School of Nursing, now a division of Samford University, but her father would not let the 17-year old girl move to Birmingham.
Education was her second option, about which she said, “Things turned out well. And I really do think I found my calling, which was to be a teacher.”
Though she attended Catholic schools as a student and taught for most of her career at Catholic schools, Glasscock is a lifelong Southern Baptist, raised in the congregation of Oak Level Baptist Church, where she and her family are still active members.
Asked if that ever created any issues for her or the school, she said, “There was never an issue, because I respected the monks and the monks respected me. And my mentor, who was Fr. Malachi Shannihan and was head of the English Department, is actually the one who mentored me and encouraged me to get my master’s degree and come back and teach.
“It’s always been home to me. We had nothing to argue about, because we were serving the same God in a different way.”
In Memoriam (?) No, not yet!
Laughing about the dangers of a retirement story coming across like a eulogy, but wanting to get around to how Glasscock wants to be remembered by coming generations of St. Bernard students, The Tribune asked her in what building, hall or room she’d like to see a plaque with her name on it, only to find out that it has already happened! She and the school are awaiting the arrival of an honorary plaque that will be displayed in the school’s library.
Her love for the school, though, is bigger than any of its buildings.
Said Glasscock, “I’ve always been fascinated by that place: the whole thing, the 800-plus acres, because when I drive, get off (Highway) 278, and head to the campus, there it’s so peaceful and quiet.
“I do believe that God has His hand on that place. I just look at the history and the dedication. Some of my students are brain surgeons now.
“I will never forget: the prep school had not been too many years in session, and we had a math teacher from over at Sacred Heart- she had come to us from the Catholic John Carroll (School) in Birmingham. She was giving a couple of the students a hard time. And she told this one student, whose name I won’t call, that he was never going to amount to anything. And he turned out to be a brain surgeon!
“St. Bernard has always prided itself on not having the best students, but taking good students and developing their potential, and then sending them out. And they’re good at doing that sort of thing.
“Just look at the history behind the place. And it’s bigger than itself, bigger than itself. Everything they do out there is bigger than itself or themselves. You know what I’m saying? And I think that’s what I found so fascinating about the place, was being part of something bigger, larger than myself.”
What do you want people to remember about your tenure at St. Bernard?
Said Glasscock, “I was always known as a tough teacher. And more recently, I was told, just in the last fall- I didn’t go to the opening on Sunday; school always opened on Sundays and the kids got checked into the dorms or whatever- one of the mothers was singing my praises because I had had her son the year before, and when he got to college, he was prepared for Freshmen English in college. And I think that’s to my credit. My goal was to have them prepared for college-level work.
“You can’t pat each one on the shoulder and say, ‘What a nice little kid you are.’ You’ve got to get down to business. I was known as a tough teacher. I am known as a tough teacher. That’s what it’s all about. I didn’t feel like I was doing my job if the student wasn’t prepared for the next level. You have to do what you’re required to do.
“I always had good rapport with my students, too. Very seldom did I have difficulty.
“The main thing now is the lack of reading on the part of the students, because they’re always sitting with this, doing this thing (performing a pantomime of some two-fisted, two-thumbed smart phone action). I told them if they wanted to do well on the ACT or the SAT, read, read, read. You can’t read enough.
“I always told my students I would never be lonely and I would never be bored if I kept my eyesight, because I love to read.”
Glasscock looks forward to more time to spend reading, tending the flower beds that surround her house, joining in church functions at Oak Level and enjoying yoga and other activities that help her keep up a healthy lifestyle. She’s also looking forward to a lot of quality time with a lot of children, grandchildren, greats and great-greats!
Said Glasscock, “I simply want to pretty much do what I feel like doing.”
Rob Harkins, a student who, according to Glasscock, “hated English to start with” until “something clicked,” took to writing poetry after his time with the teacher who led him to a newfound and profound love for words. During a visit earlier this year, he presented her this poem:
Such wondrous gazing to my eyes you brought,
While knowledge yet remained in dimmer night,
Twas wrought within my mind, and on I sought
Til through that darkness broke undying light.
A planted seed to sprout in budding youth~
And oh, the lovely journey of the growth!
For what I now hold as unyielding truth
Is the read, the written, the love of both!
The hearts of Byron, Keats, the soul of Donne,
My own heart and my soul they gently touch
And give a brighter light unto the sun
That shines into a soul and feels that such
A grateful mind and ever grateful heart
In debt to yours until my soul shall part.
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