Retiring from the front lines of teaching
It's no April Fool's Day joke — when Spring Break starts for local students on April 1, a longtime Southern Lee High School instructor will take his own, permanent break.
First Sgt. David Jenkins, who began the Army Junior Reserve Officer Trainer Corps at Southern Lee when the school was founded in 2006, has spent 21 years teaching JROTC, including the last 16 years in Lee County. But he turned 60 this past weekend, and he and his wife, Terry, have the travel bug. They sold everything they owned, bought an RV and plan to become full-time adventurers.
"We're going to drive off into the sunset," Jenkins said.
Jenkins said he loves his job and can't imagine having done anything else for the last two-plus decades, but he said it was simply time to go, and he hopes the kids in the program understand. He holds dear his connection with the students — one student he taught 20 years ago came to his recent retirement party — although he said it can be a labor of love considering the varied, and sometimes inauspicious, backgrounds of the cadets.
"You pour your heart out to them and hope that you reach them," he said, which he acknowledged is a big change from his outlook when he left the Army as a sergeant after 20 years in various military jobs.
"I was mean when I got off active duty," Jenkins said. "But these kids have mellowed me out."
And that fact's not lost on his students. Some agreed he can be strict, especially in the classroom, but loves to cut up outside of school.
"He's definitely the one that lightens the mood," said junior Nate Holton, who competed for a year and a half on the rifle team that Jenkins coaches.
Holton, as well as sophomores Cassidy Hickman and Gabby Williams, used the word "mentor" to describe Jenkins. Jenkins said Williams, who just qualified for nationals, is statistically the best shooter he's ever coached despite only two years of competitive experience.
Hickman, the second-best shooter after Williams, said that while Jenkins is definitely invested in the rifle team and loves to see the students succeed, he treats them well, win or lose.
"When we do [badly], he doesn't rub it in our face," Hickman said. "He knows that we know, and he just lets it be."
Added Holton: "There's not been a rifle competition that I've been on that wasn't a ton of fun, even if we lost badly."
Jenkins' sense of how to handle the emotions of high schoolers extends beyond the shooting range, too. He reportedly shows his silly side by singing happy birthday to students in his best Donald Duck voice, and he has been known to make up songs on the fly during road trips.
But when the situation calls for it, he can be serious.
"Whenever I was going through something bad, he'd be there for me," Hickman said. "He'd always know exactly what to say."
Jenkins explained that the philosophy he has tried to instill in himself and the rest of the school's JROTC instructors is simply to teach the students, but also listen to and learn from them.
"A student might only remember the name of one high school teacher, and I think a lot of the time, it's the name of someone from JROTC," he said.