If there was a star in that first set of stories about Jefferson School, it was Howard Small. Bright and outgoing, but undisciplined and brash, Howard was portrayed as the canary in the coalmine. He was the quintessential at-risk kid, an underachiever but one with a great deal of potential.
“I was just hard-headed,” he said, smiling and shaking his head as he reminisced while sitting at his dining room table in an apartment in St. Charles County. “Hard-headed and spoiled.”
Howard’s last name is apt. He is diminutive. He sometimes used that to his advantage. He was quite adorable, knew it and, as a result, could get away with doing less than his best. He was also athletic; a great tumbler, and later in life he would prove to be an elusive running back and a star on his high school football team. But because of his size, he was a target for bullies and he carried a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
Feeling like he had to prove his manhood, Howard said he began affiliating with gang culture. He got in trouble a lot; he once even got shot. He fathered two children and got hauled into court over an alleged failure to provide child support. He lived up to all the stereotypes we have for inner city children. And yet, Howard is now engaged to be married. He is holding down two jobs and has worked out his child support arrangements. His apartment is full of books that he avidly reads to his kids and his fiancée’s two children.
Looking back, he remembers that his fifth grade year with Mary Spencer as pivotal, a touchstone, that helped him find his way out of the mess that his teenage years and young adulthood had become. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he said, he knew he had to become the solid citizen that Mrs. Spencer expected him to be. You could not let her down.
Howard remembers at least vaguely all the corporate and civic support for his school. If you were to piece together his day-to-day activities, you could appreciate that this support provided Howard with after-school activities he might not otherwise have found, helped him become computer literate, and to stay at least on grade-level with his reading through a special program called Success For All.
But what he appreciated most were not the programs, but the teacher.
“She ran by the school criteria, but she twisted it a bit,” Howard said of Spencer. “We were more than just students to her. We were like her kids and grandkids. She would tell you, ‘I taught your mama, daddy, your cousins’… All these generations this lady has pushed is just amazing.”
“My life could have turned out a whole lot totally different if Mrs. Spencer had never been there [for me],” he said.
So, what does Howard think about the millions of dollars invested by civic leaders into Jefferson School and the students?
“The money didn’t mean nothing,” he said, “compared to Mrs. Spencer.”
By Evita Caldwell
Photos by J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Howard Small with his daughter, Brayana at his apartment in St. Charles.
Howard was a handful as a fifth grader at Jefferson School. But he loved to read, especially the Harry Potter series.