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Rock and roll bucket list: NJHS teacher retires after 5,000 students, 38 years

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HER FIRST CLASS. Connie Castleberry holds a picture of her first civics class at Nsahville Junior High in 1977. “Mrs. C.,” as students called her, retired last week after 38 years at NJHS. Leader photo/DIXON LAND

By Dixon Land

Leader Staff

“I was nine when [President John F.] Kennedy was assassinated, and it was very impressionable. I would wake up in the middle of the night and I guess I was dreaming, but all I could think about was the drum cadence as they were marching through the streets of Washington during his funeral.”

For one Nashville civics teacher, civics hasn’t been something that was just taught, it was experienced; and even more so, it was passionately expressed to students in the form of 38 years.

Connie Castleberry retired last week. A child of Benton, Ark., she moved here after graduating from the University of Arkansas with her husband, Rick, a longtime “Nashville boy,” as she would describe him. He and his family owned the local radio stations, she taught and they began to make a home in Nashville. Her first civics class of Nashville Junior High was in 1977. 38 children, 1 teacher.

“I had one civic class with 38 kids in it, and this was before there were like limits on class size and I had four or six eighth grade history classes,” Castleberry said. “I’ve taught a few lawyers and a few doctors. You know it’s about time to hang it up though when you realize there are 11 people on the faculty that you’ve taught.”

And of all the students, which Castleberry estimates to be more than 5,000, she says that most of them remember her mock trial most.

“I’ve been doing the same mock trial for probably the last 35 years,” Castleberry said. “Every semester is different because you never know what you might get. They have information that they learn, but sometimes one of the student lawyers might ask something that they haven’t thought about and it’s like improv right there, so they are always fun.”

When asked about her favorite person in American history, she quickly refers to the poster of John F. Kennedy plastered on the wall behind her desk.

“I was six when Kennedy and [Richard] Nixon had their debate. I remember watching a little bit of it, but I remember mom and dad talking about it and I remember it being on the black and white TV,” Castleberry said. “Kennedy is my favorite president, but James Madison is a really close second.”

While the curriculum of civics is what Castleberry is passionate about, the students are why Castleberry has gotten up and gone to work at Nashville Junior High School since 1977.

“I’ve had several students that you think ‘well if they could just mature or get over an issue, they’ll go very far in life,’” Castleberry said. “You still want to remember all your students as little Johnny that sat over there in the third row, but you know and see their potential and hope that they are able to reach it.”

For Castleberry, the love of teaching came from a personal experience with one of her teachers.

“I had an eighth grade history teacher that was so hard, but I liked the class and I could remember the material. It wasn’t just memory, it was concepts and figuring out why people did what they did. I just loved it,” Castleberry said.

In 38 years, Castleberry has experienced and taught through many of the crises and victories that the United States has encountered in the last generation. The main difference between then and now?

“Back then it was right after the Bicentennial so we still had high patriotism and the people in Congress were civil to each other,” Castleberry said. “They disagreed, but they sometimes came to common ground and they still were polite to each other. It’s dog eat dog now, and it really makes me mad sometimes.”

For a teacher that teaches conceptually and by practical examples, Castleberry does say that standardized tests are necessary for education, though she says that everyone learns differently.

“If Arkansas is going to compete for jobs, we have to have an educated public and you’re always going to have our students being compared with others,” Castleberry said. “Unfortunately that’s the way that it is. I don’t like the stuff about the cookie cutter kids though. Kids are all individual and they’re all different. It’s like trying to fit square pegs in round holes. Everybody learns differently.”

Castleberry, who has made her home in Nashville, has no plans of leaving, even though she is retiring from the Nashville School System.

“I did not grow up here. But I raised my kids here and my grandkids are here. People always ask me if I will move back to Benton because I have family there and I tell them that I also have family here. I’m not planning on leaving here anytime soon,” Castleberry said.

She did say that she would be traveling to visit places she has always wanted to go, including seeing some of her favorite rock and roll artists, before they retire themselves.

“I’ve got a bucket list and places I want to go. I’m obsessed with rock and roll and there’s a few more people I want to see in concert before they retire,” Castleberry said.