More Than a Career—His Calling
The school calendar, with its beginning and ending, marks milestones in almost everyone’s life. Gary Herring has been a key figure in those milestones for a few thousand families who have watched their children come through the ranks at First Presbyterian Day School in Jackson. This particular year-end holds special meaning, his very own milestone, as he closes a 31-year chapter as Head of School.
It is rare these days to spend an entire career in one organization within the four walls of a single institution. Gary certainly had no intention of doing so when he accepted the job in 1987. He was, after all, the son of two educators, and he was not that person who would follow in those parental footsteps—except that he was and he did! What he could not have seen in the beginning is that this was not a job, but rather, a calling. He would fall in love with the people whose lives intersected his in this common mission that did so much more than educate young minds. The goal of Christian education involves a foundation upon which lives are built and the future is shaped.
It did not take him long to realize that the stakes were higher than skinned knees and lost lunchboxes. He has watched an entire generation grow up right before his eyes. The parents who walk through the heavy double doors of the Day School on “Meet the Teacher Day” now were once the little bitty students who sat at the tiny desks in the first-grade classrooms in Gary’s first years there. It is one of his great joys to greet them and to hear from them that they have chosen First Pres for the very same reasons their parents chose it for them.
The Christian worldview coupled with a solid academic emphasis has proven to be an unbeatable combination.
On this chilly February day, Gary takes me on a tour of the sprawling facility, the wide halls bustling with several orderly lines of children coming and going in all directions. Their faces light up when they see their respected leader, and one after another greets him, “Hi, Mr. Herring. Hello, Mr. Herring.” Numerous cheerful bulletin boards dot the walls along every corridor, most with colorful construction paper letters spelling out scripture verses. They testify to talent and creativity and remind me that this school continues to be a happy place for children. It really “feels” free, spontaneous, and joy-filled. The truth is that there is a great deal of intentional prayer and planning that creates such an atmosphere.
In the kindergarten class, a diverse group of eager five-year-olds recites for me “The First Presbyterian Day School Declaration.” Every student from kindergarten through sixth grade memorizes this original statement of faith. There are daily opportunities to repeat it together. In 211 words, it lays out the standard in belief and behavior that governs both the inner and the outer life.
“We teach them what it means to be a Christian,” says Gary. “We are preparing them to live their life in their home and in their school and in their future profession. We have a mission and that mission is that we plant seeds of Christlikeness in children’s hearts and we teach them to pursue academic excellence. That’s what we are all about. When you get into that, you realize that is something we can be passionate about because we can affect their lives and their family’s lives.”
There is a sober sense of stewardship in the way Gary describes his position. There is also a certain way his eyes tear up at times, and at other times seem to smile when he remembers the past 31 years. He was a young 34-year-old father of two little girls in 1987. Assuming the job was pretty straightforward with regular hours and low stress, he did not know how much he did not know when he accepted the school board’s offer! He expected to stay there for a few years and then move into something more in tune with his two business administration degrees and certainly more potentially lucrative. But that thought went by the wayside as his heartstrings got all wrapped up in real people, and he did not have to look outside the four walls of the school to find something more challenging or meaningful or fitting for his skill set.
School administration was not just popping into a classroom now and then, disciplining a few unruly little boys here and there, and giving a good speech at Back-to-School Night. Three decades later, he can give eyewitness and heartfelt testimony on the value and impact of the Day School’s ministry. Its influence is essentially lifelong.
Adapting to Change
First Presbyterian Day School was founded in 1965 following two significant U.S. Supreme Court Decisions removing Bible reading and prayer from public schools. The Ten Commandments, which had been posted in countless classrooms throughout the country, were also prohibited. Church leaders at Jackson’s historic First Presbyterian Church established the school with their children in mind primarily to preserve the holistic education that had previously been the norm in public schools across America. Hearts and minds, hearts and minds–that has been the focus from the very first day.
The school included three sections beginning with a five-year-old kindergarten class and advancing through the sixth grade. A low teacher/student ratio was a strength—and one that has continued to be a hallmark. Priority for admission was given to church members, but community demand immediately created a waiting list. The school flourished and enrollment grew. The facility itself expanded. Curriculum has continued to incorporate the best of the new with the best of the old.
Presbyterians are frequently teased about their resistance to change, and tradition has indeed been one of the special things about First Presbyterian Day School. Certain annual class plays, the fall fundraiser “Holiday Potpourri,” and significant biblical instruction are unchanged through the generations.
However, follow the rapidly changing culture and we see the increased number of children from broken homes, the technology revolution, and the overload of secular philosophy in every venue of daily existence. A Christian Day School is in no way immune to the issues of modern life. It has been important to Gary to pay attention to all of those trends, remain true to the school’s mission, and at the same time be receptive to new ideas, new programs, and new procedures when needed.
Gary has found the governing school board to put considerable thought, research, and prayer into its decisions regarding the school. It was a big step when a three-year-old and a four-year-old program were added in 2016. Such a need did not exist fifty years ago. Gary explains that Millennials are the young parents of today, and most are two-career families. The need was there for a safe and nurturing environment for their children.
When online registration for the pre-primer opened on the first day, the program was full within two hours. In response, the program continues to add teachers, space, and students. It is now the entry point into the kindergarten program. There is also after-school care until 6 p.m.
Gary knew very little about the term “learning disabilities” in 1987. “We see children who have issues that we did not see years ago—particularly dyslexia and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Approximately 10 to 15% of the population has dyslexia,” he says.
The issue became up close and personal for Gary a few years ago when his granddaughter was not reading at the end of second grade. “It was an emotional issue for me,” he says candidly. Seeing that child he loved dearly struggle so much cast a whole new light on just how impactful dyslexia could be in the child’s life and in the life of the family. The frustration was just enormous, and he was ready to move heaven and earth to help her and to help others like her.
Today, First Pres maintains five dyslexic therapists on staff. The proven program allows a student to attend class in a regular classroom but to be taught the material by the therapist whose approach is specifically tailored to the way a dyslexic student learns. “Today,” says Gary, ”we can give these students a prescription for how to learn to read and how to be successful.” There are about 40 or 50 students at any given time in the dyslexia program.
Technology has been hands down the most consistently challenging and changing aspect affecting his role as Head of School. Computers were in their infancy in 1987. Year after year computer applications were incorporated into the curriculum, but with the advent of the Internet, social media, smartphones, smartwatches and more, technology’s influence has been something of a double-edged sword necessitating new policies all the time.
In fact, the longest and most detailed section of the student handbook spells out the school rules regarding Internet, social media, and tablets. Students who violate the rule that says phones are off and out of sight during the school day will find their phone locked in Mr. Herring’s desk for seven long days. Students and parents alike understand the consequences of violating that rule. It does happen, but it is not a frequent occurrence.
The Big Picture
Gary’s sheer life experience has been invaluable in providing calm and stable guidance in the middle of a culture that seems to be anything but stable even here in the Bible Belt. The ups and downs of daily life as a husband and father, and now grandfather, definitely helped shape his compassion quotient and his seasoned perspective when it comes to the lives of students and their families.
Of all the tough situations he has dealt with through the years, he says his greatest heartache is “seeing children hurt. In this culture we live in today, families are hurting, and they don’t always look like it on the outside.”
He believes that parenting is more difficult today than it was thirty years ago. He has had a front- row seat these three decades, and he has seen the pressure and the stresses intensify even as so many have so much materially. Eighteen years ago he brought a full-time counselor on board. Jennifer Dryden stays busy, but through the years she has “done a wonderful job of helping families and helping children who have problems and hurts about what’s going on at home.”
Gary points to a dime taped to the back of his office door. There is meaning behind that dime, and it is known to the entire staff and faculty. He also gives one to all teachers at the beginning of each school year and tells them to keep it in sight on their desk. It’s a reminder to use this question when determining the importance of any given issue whether with a student or a parent: “Does it matter eternally?”
There is no doubt that teachers, as well as parents, will pose that question years and years and years past their days at FPDS. That question will remain a part of Gary Herring’s great legacy.