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Learning Never Stops

College Professor, Student Reconnect After 50 Years

As a high school junior, Harry Smith assumed he had dodged his academic weakness with words by excelling in chemistry. “I thought, ‘This is wonderful. You only need to know two letters.’,” he recalled. “… the first test was the complete spelling of all the elements. I struggled.”

Even considering college seemed an impossible task. “I thought I would fail the first semester and then go into the Navy,” he said.

Discouraged, the Glen Burnie resident later attended a play put on by Anne Arundel Community College students. As prop swords for “Hamlet” swung overhead, he had an epiphany. “I knew the community college was the best option for me,” he said. “When I walked out of the play and onto the campus I relaxed and knew there was a starting point.”

Had he been born later, Smith suspects he would have been diagnosed with an auditory processing deficit learning disability. Academic support services in the 1970s were nothing like they are today, and Smith, the first in his family to attend college, hoped to find a supportive institution.

In 1971 he set foot on the Arnold campus as a new student. At the time the college had two academic buildings, a gym and a library. He said he enjoyed classes in architecture, psychology and biology, while finding the English requirement particularly challenging.

“For anyone else with the same struggles I had, to pass an English class, it would have killed them,” he said. But Smith found himself in class taught by James Atwell, a patient instructor who gave the same compassion to the shaken Vietnam War veterans in the classroom as he did the struggling kid from the county. Atwell taught writing, reading and research in a passionate and relatable way. "He gave it meaning,” Smith said.

In the class Smith gained confidence and caught his academic stride, graduating with an associate degree in 1973. Eventually he earned a bachelor’s from Washington College and a master’s from Towson University and enjoyed a long career in school psychology. “I think I’m living a good life and I think I’m living that good life because of people at the community college,” he said.

Now retired, Smith took a poetry class through a lifelong learning program at Salisbury University. Among the reflections, his old professor came to mind. “I said, ‘You know, I never really thanked James Atwell; he was the most influential teacher of my life.’.” Though the two had not been in contact for more than 50 years, the impact was enough that Smith felt compelled to reach out to let Atwell know what his guidance had meant.

A brief internet search led to a letter, and despite teaching countless students over the decades, Atwell, who had retired to upstate New York, remembered Smith the moment he received the letter. “I was shocked but delighted,” he said. “This was almost 50 years after we’d been together on both sides of the teacher’s desk, but he took the chance to reach out and I was so glad that he did. It brings up memories of my time when I was a young teacher.”

Atwell had been a new instructor when Smith came through his class, and said it was an exciting thing to be at a young institution with motivated students. “I saw that over and over again. Young people were very excited about their own capacities because they were finding they could do things they had never allowed themselves to dare. ... Harry was a great example of that. He was a guy whose education just took off.”
The letter turned into a phone call, which turned into a visit, then two, and then more, with both men enjoying the restart of a relationship started over words years ago.

“He was once a teacher, but now it feels like he’s a family member,” Smith said.