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Jane SmithLet’s admit it, when students know that they have a substitute teacher, they assume they have a day off.  That would not be the case for a very special substitute teacher named Jane Smith.

Smith may be the oldest active substitute teacher in Virginia. Subbing for Buckingham County Public Schools for almost 20 years, Smith, at the age of 86, reports to the school division’s classrooms on a fairly consistent basis; she’s a regular at Buckingham Middle School.

Why would an 86-year-old go into the classroom when she could be doing most anything else? Because of her love for children and the joy of teaching.
Originally from Page County, Smith attended Radford University (nee College). Because her husband was a forester, the family moved to a number of locations in Virginia. While living in Charlotte County, Smith taught at Randolph Henry High School – she recalls teaching Gene Dixon, Jr. and Patrick Henry’s great-great grandson – where she also ran the debate team. “Those were wonderful years,” said Smith.

Sadly, those wonderful years ended when Smith and her husband had to deal with the death of their college-aged son at the hands of a drunk driver. “That destroyed our marriage,” said Smith. “My husband was angry and could not get over our son’s death.”

Smith, now a single woman, entered Union Seminary in Richmond to earn a master’s in religious education. “Those four years in Richmond were enriching,” she said. “I went into very depressed areas of the city to assist in feeding the poor. I found out what life was really about. It allowed my life to broaden and see across cultural and economic lines.”

After graduating from the seminary, Smith served as a minister for Braddock United Methodist Church in Winchester. “I arrived at the church and walked onto a red carpet. I think that was a sign,” she said. Smith became director of religious education. “I had to work with the school and all the religious programs. I was suited for the job as they needed an older person. It was two decades of the most wonderful years of my life,” she said.

Smith was nearing retirement age when her daughter asked her to come live with her in Buckingham County. “I was happy to be with my daughter but also heartbroken and wondered what I would do in such a remote area,” she said. Little did she know that her worries would lead her back into the classroom.

“I was driving to my daughter’s home in Curdsville one day when I became very sad about my situation,” she said. “I thought I was going to be lonely in such an isolated area and was also upset because my teaching certificate had expired. I started to sob and pulled over at Granny’s Attic. Then I heard someone knocking on my car window. I was frightened at first and did not respond but the person kept knocking and saying ‘Lady, are you ok? Why are you crying? Are you lost, in trouble? Let me help you.’”

Smith had encountered Dr. James Coonan, who was the superintendent of the Buckingham school system at that time. “He reached through the window and held my hand as I told him about my concerns and my love of teaching,” said Smith. “When he heard my story, he said ‘I have a job for you.’ I asked him who he was and that’s when I found out he was a school superintendent.”

It turns out there was a music teacher vacancy at Gold Hill Elementary. Smith took the position as a long-term sub to finish up the year. “I loved every minute of it. I’ve been substituting ever since,” she said. Smith has subbed throughout the school division but finds that her passion is middle school. “I sub whenever they need me. I’m anything but a babysitter and man, do they know it,” she said.

Smith is well-known by the children. “I begin a class with ‘eyes and ears,’” she said. “I don’t say or do anything until everyone has their eyes on me. I’ve heard the kids say, ‘Mrs. Smith is here so we have to listen.’ It’s the rapport, really. I think they like having an older teacher.” Smith noted that she believes one of her gifts is being a storyteller. “I tell them about FDR, the atomic bomb, Martin Luther King.  Sometimes they say, ‘Mrs. Smith, just tell us a story.’ I’m quite a storyteller,” she said.

Along with subbing, Smith has taken on another duty that is dear to her heart. “About five years ago I got a call from Union Seminary asking me to fill in at Concord Presbyterian Church in Evergreen until their new student pastor came,” she said. “The student never came and I’ve been filling in two Sundays a month ever since. I love doing it.”

As to why someone at the age of 86 would take on such tasks, Smith said, “I fear the time when I won’t be able to do anything. I enjoy this and see it as my legacy. I think God gives older people perception and it helps a younger person to be told by an older person their value and talents. I believe students need to hear from someone what their gifts and graces are and to know that you have high expectations.”

Smith subs two or three times a week. “I do lament that penmanship and public speaking are not emphasized,” she said. “I intend to sub until I die and minister until they find a full-time person. I’m blessed to have good health, a good mind, and good friends. I’m happy as a lark.”