Man, 80, finds teacher, 87, about six decades later
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG, Banner Staff Writer
Jun 07, 2013 | 817 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Just like old times
JAMES FINLEY, left, poses for a photo with his former student, Benny Shope, at the store where he works. Contributed photo
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Some 65 years after James Finley had first taught Benny Shope in school, the two men recently reunited with each other in an unexpected way.

Shope thought the man working in the hardware department of a local Walmart looked familiar. He decided to strike up a conversation just in case, and it turned out that he had just reunited with his childhood school teacher from many years ago.

Now, Shope makes sure to stop and talk to his former teacher whenever he shops.

Shope celebrates his 80th birthday today, and Finley has seen 87 years. However, Finley said he still remembers how he ended up teaching at Wooten Elementary School in the Bucks Pocket community near the Bradley and Polk County line.

Finley moved to Tennessee from Kentucky in 1948 at 22 years of age with only two years of college under his belt. After unsuccessfully trying to sell portrait photography packages in Kentucky coal mining communities, he decided to pursue teaching where his uncle lived in Tennessee.

He approached the area school superintendent and asked about teaching jobs. He was told that there were no jobs available for his experience level. Before Finley could leave, the superintendent’s secretary, whom he knew from church when he was young, spoke up and told the superintendent that she had known Finley since he was a “knee-high tall grasshopper” and would “do well to hire him.” 

The superintendent was having trouble finding a replacement for a school principal who had died unexpectedly, so he told Finley he would consider him for the job if he found nobody else.

Meanwhile, Finley began working as a substitute teacher, covering for two who had become sick. The following week, the 22-year-old was offered a job as principal of the three-room Wooten Elementary. In addition to principal duties, he also taught sixth- through eighth-grade students. Back then, middle schools did not yet exist in the area.

“I only had three days’ of teaching experience. The children and I learned together,” Finley said. “I was a city boy, and they were country children.” 

His students would often bring him small gifts of things found outside, and he said he would try to use items they already knew as teaching tools. Some boys brought in items like animal skulls that he could use to teach how teeth worked. A live green garden snake in a jar helped illustrate a story the students were reading about snakes. When an animal like a snake died, he would preserve it in a jar so students could continue to see it up close.

Finley also remembered he liked to “provoke” students by asking them questions they had to think about critically. He asked students who had invented the first car. A student answered that it was Henry Ford, and Finley explained that a Frenchman named Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot had built a steam-powered vehicle before him. He asked students where the book of Hezekiah was in the Bible; there was no such book.

It was in his those classes that Finley met Shope. Now, they are friends rather than just a student and a teacher.

Times are different now, Finley said, pointing out students today seem to have “lost respect” for their parents and teachers, and things like the Bible cannot be taught the way they once were. Still, the retired teacher who decided to take on a retail job said he remembers his teaching career, Shope and his other students fondly. He added those memories made meeting up with a former student again even more special.

“We just kept up our friendship again after all these years,” Finley said with a smile.