John F. Kennedy was president when Inell Greene landed her first assignment as a newly minted elementary school teacher. Six decades later, Greene, an 80-year-old middle school math teacher at Charleston Development Academy (CDA), will retire June 3 — for the second time.
Greene and four siblings were raised by her mother in modest homes around Charleston. In 1963, after graduating Burke High School, she went on to Benedict College in Columbia, becoming the family’s only college graduate. Shortly thereafter, she was offered a math teaching job at Charleston’s A.B. Rhett elementary as South Carolina took its first feeble steps toward ending racially segregated schools. She taught there through the time the school became a middle school, then taught at Rivers Middle School before she retired in 2013. But her work wasn’t done, so she returned to teaching. “I was young, had no health issues, so I decided to continue to work,” she said. Out of retirement, she taught at Brentwood Middle, then Charleston Progressive Academy before she arrived at CDA when it was only an elementary school.
Despite teaching through the presidencies of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Carter, Clinton, two Bushes, an Obama and a Trump, Greene is unphased by the span of American history that has paralleled her teaching career. In Charleston, where mostly majority white and majority black schools, and de facto segregation still exists, she has soldiered on.
“I’ve always worked in a so-to-speak segregated school,” Greene said. “I’ve always worked in a school that was predominately black. I didn’t see any difference. My students did well. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
A final big assignment
CDA opened as a charter elementary school in 2003 at the west end of Line Street with 35 students in grades K-5 through third grade. A separate CDA middle school opened on St. Philip St. five years ago. Enrollment is now at 60 middle school students at the St. Philip Street campus. Today, 130 elementary students attended classes at CDA’s original campus. Most of the students who’ll graduate this week began as CDA kindergartners, said the school’s director Dr. Shawn Johnson.
The CDA’s growth, he said, “shows that parents trust our program and respect the work we do.”
Greene has one more big CDA assignment before she leaves the teaching profession for good to focus on helping her four grandchildren and one great-grandchild sharpen their math skills. For the 13th year, she will direct CDA’s middle school graduation ceremony at 10 a.m. today at the giant gazebo in Hampton Park. Charleston Mayor John J. Tecklenburg will be a featured speaker.
This will be the largest graduating class at CDA. To prepare 22 fidgety eighth-graders for a near flawless ceremony, Greene shouted stern orders during a three-hour rehearsal in the park on a hot Tuesday morning.
“Alright boys and girls, come out of that tree,” she told five students perched high in a giant oak. “Oh my child! Like a red, red rose, please stand up!” she told a boy slouched in a folding chair.
With her hands on her hips, she told the children: “You better learn the words to your song!” They will serenade some 100 teachers, parents and fellow students during the ceremony with Boyz II Men’s It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday.
This school year’s valedictorian Jay-lynn Mitchell, 14, turned to Greene for help with Algebra I. “She’ll be missed,” Mitchell said. “She helped us on projects. She’d put things together for us so we can have fun in school.” Greene can be tough when she wants to make a point, Mitchell added, “but she’s not mean. She’s nurturing.”
Tough love from an old-school teacher
On the surface, Greene, slightly taller than many of her students, comes across as a hardened Marine Corps drill sergeant. But this tough-talking, old-school yet loving educator, is remembered fondly by her former students.
“I love that woman,” Michael Whack, Mayor Tecklenburg’s special assistant, said gleefully. “I can’t begin to tell you what she did for my mind. I have admired her all my life, since she taught me as a fifth grader to use my imagination creatively, to think inquisitively, and to speak confidently. I sensed her love for teaching and derived my love for learning from her.”
Yolanda Ellerbee, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and senior Army instructor in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) at Burke High School, arrived at the rehearsal with three Burke students who will serve as the graduation color guard. She and Greene embraced, a sign of a bond extended beyond education. Not only are Ellerbee and Greene cousins, Greene was also Ellerbee’s seventh-grade math teacher at Rhett Middle School. “She was very strict,” said Ellerbee. “She would laugh and play with us, but education was big for her not only in the school but also in the family.”
“I don’t think she wants to leave the kids,” Ellerbee added. “She has had a big impact on the kids because she loves doing what she does.”
As the rehearsal ended, Greene walked toward her car parked on Cleveland Street. When she asked if a Charleston City Paper reporter plans to interview her former students, a former CDA student named Mark Freeman appeared. “Look at my boy,” Greene said with her arms extended.
“What grade are you in now?” she asked.
The West Ashley high schooler proudly announced he had a date for the recent prom, and he’ll graduate next month.
“She was a nice teacher,” said Freeman, who plans to enroll in a local welding school. “She really wanted us to learn math, and I like math because of her.”
When Richard Mullins and his wife moved to Charleston 13 years ago from the Midwest they became part of Greene’s extended family. Greene was one of the people who first interviewed Mullins for an English and writing teaching position at CDA.
“I was asking so many questions she still tells me she thought she was the one being interviewed,” Mullins said with a laugh. “She had my wife and I over for Thanksgiving before we had kids,” he added. “Now she even helps to take care of our two boys, who are six and three. (They) love her, and she loves them. She has been like (our) mother away from home.”
In the coming years, Greene said, she’ll still be teaching math, but her students will be four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. “Instead of (teaching math) to other people’s children, I will be able to do it for my children,” she said.
“Ms. Green is an institution,” Johnson said. “She brought to CDA, the faculty and the community, a wealth of knowledge and experiences. She is always the one to have the conscience of the group. When she speaks we stop and listen. We are going to miss her expertise, and we’re going to miss the person.”
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