If you live in the Tampa Bay area–and perhaps anywhere in Florida–the man above needs no introduction. Ernest Hooper has been sharing his thoughts with readers for many years, always concluding with his characteristic “that’s all I’m saying.”
I have had the honor of knowing Ernest for about a year now, and how our relationship started and since blossomed is nothing short of serendipitous. We first met through a chance introduction at a local coffee shop last fall. We shook hands, I told him that I was a fan, and we parted ways. But life seems to find ways for us to keep crossing paths and building on our friendship.
This past March, Ernest was the keynote speaker at an Alliance for Public Schools event showcasing increasing graduation rates in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. He spoke eloquently about how he started as a journalist because one of his teachers encouraged him to join the school newspaper after reading his sports stories. Before he left, I reintroduced myself, complimented him on his speech, and told him a little bit about the Teacher Voice blog and podcast.
After exchanging emails a few times, he asked me to take part in his Sunday Conversation piece, and I eagerly agreed. We met at a local restaurant and, although the actual interview only lasted 30 minutes, we talked for well over two hours about public education, the Florida Legislature, the coming elections, and just about everything in between. I walked away even more impressed with Ernest. Our wide ranging conversation revealed him to be an extraordinarily inquisitive, insightful, intelligent and humble human being.
Serendipity struck again this past Monday when I found Ernest in the same coffee shop. He asked if I had plans for the next day, and when I said I had none he invited me to attend the “2018 Political Hob Nob” hosted by the Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce at the Tampa Convention Center. How could I say no?
Before we entered the ballroom, Ernest asked me if I had a notepad. I left everything in my car so he supplied me with the long type that journalists often carry, and he officially “deputized” me as a journalist. Ostensibly, he was there to write an upcoming column about which candidates for the Florida Legislature would take the FEA pledge to fight for raising teacher salaries to the national average by 2023; Ernest had a vested interest in this story, though, because his son Ethan had started his teaching career in Orlando county the day before.
We were men on a mission.
For over two hours, I was Ernest’s wingman as we walked the room, shaking hands, asking questions, and listening to answers. I kept a tab of who would take the pledge and who would not, but I will leave that for Ernest to tell you about when his column is published on Friday, August 24th. Regardless of their political affiliations, most of the candidates wanted to support public education and were very cordial.
Most, but not all.
Easily the most salient interaction I witnessed involved one in which a candidate said more with what was not said. Ernest approached the candidate, asked about the pledge, and the candidate in question did not know what the national average for teacher salaries is (just shy of $60K), what the average salary is for Florida’s teachers (a little under $48K), or that our state ranks 45th in teacher salaries when compared to the U.S. Instead, Ernest was rebuffed twice: the first time over having to pay for the table to be at the event and that the candidate had to talk to people who could offer support via their vote (Ernest and I were the only ones talking to this candidate); the second time, only a moment later, when the candidate’s aide clearly ushered someone over to take our place. We were dismissed with a “call me for an interview.”
As a Social Studies teacher and active citizen, this was the most shameful, disheartening display from a potential public official. Regardless of whether or not Ernest and I (or anyone for that matter) live in this candidate’s district, this person potentially represents Hillsborough County and all of us. To see a fellow citizen turned away with a dismissive “just a journalist” attitude is the wrong tact to take for any candidate or elected official.
We pressed on.
I had to take my leave from Ernest before I really wanted to, but I needed to get home. I thanked him for the opportunity, and kept the radio off on my drive home to reflect on our time together. While meeting the candidates and networking with future legislators was indeed fun, the biggest takeaway from the experience was simply spending more time with Ernest and learning from his gracious nature. He introduced me each time as his friend first, then as a teacher. He encouraged me to give cards away for Teacher Voice. He invited me into the discussion often, allowing me to share my expertise with the candidates, both in terms of my personal experience as a classroom teacher and as informed public education advocate.
If you don’t know Ernest, I hope that you are fortunate enough to one day meet the man behind the column. He’s quick with a smile, has a great laugh, an affable nature, and is genuinely listening to what others have to say. Just walking around the room for those two hours and talking to him in between candidates was about the best way I could have spent my Tuesday afternoon.
And I can’t wait for serendipity to strike again.