Over his years teaching, Richard Sturgeon amassed a personalized T-shirt collection that his AP U.S. History students designed. One features a sketch of “The Sturgeonator,” and another the words “Sturgeon for President” with a quote from him on the back: “Historical proof that smart is sexy.”
What’s the story behind that one? “(My students) all know James Madison was my guy,” Richard notes, explaining he’d studied Madison in graduate school. “I tell them James Madison was our shortest president. He was shy and nerdy, a boy genius. But he married Dolly Madison who was vivacious and outgoing, and the girl lots of people wanted to marry. He was assisted by George and Martha Washington—never hurts to have the father of the country as your wingman. Who got the girl? The short, shy, uber smart genius boy. It’s historical proof that smart is sexy.”
If Richard taught you at Berry High or Hoover High School between 1989 and 2020, you know about his encyclopedic knowledge for Madison and that he’s not afraid to correct tour guides at historical sites if they get their facts off. At the end of the day, that was the heart of his teaching career just as it was his wife Jill’s teaching English—a passion for the subject matter, as well as the students themselves. “They are inherently interesting, we just have to make (the subjects) come alive for themselves,” Richard explains.
James Madison is to Richard what William Shakespeare is to Jill, who most recently taught twelfth-grade English at Spain Park High School as well as a Shakespeare elective she developed. For her teaching Shakespeare unlocks what at first seems like a foreign language to students for them to see what the writer had to say about the human condition. “It’s poetry, and that’s the greatness of it,” she says. “He borrowed a lot of his plots because he was a business man who wanted to make a buck, but the plays are (about) the language.”
Although the couple wrapped up their careers at Hoover and Spain Park, respectively, when they retired in May of this year, they first met when they both taught at Berry High School, the predecessor to Hoover High before Hoover opened in 1994.
The first time Richard saw Jill she was sitting on a bench outside the library at Berry in 1989. He’d just been hired to teach history and had come in for a meeting that summer when they were introduced. Their second date was to a movie theater in Hoover where they saw students, and word quickly got out at the school. But “she dumped me by putting a note in my box at school, which I still have,” Richard tells. The second time they started dating, they kept it quiet until they were engaged, driving to movie theatres in other parts of town.
“Even some of my teacher friends didn’t know we were dating,” Jill recalls. “I was teaching Night by Elie Wiesel at the time (when we got engaged). All these teachers were running around excited and I was showing them the ring, and then I had to walk back in and teach Night (about the Holocaust).”
Speaking of Berry, Jill actually went to the school herself from seventh to 11th grade and even had ninth grade English in the same classroom she taught in. The English teacher she remembers most was from eighth grade though. “Ms. Taylor would come in with her coffee and doughnut after smoking a cigarette,” she says. “She would have you spellbound with Robinson Crusoe and Evangeline and all these old things. She’s still directing theater in Birmingham.”
Jill took a break from teaching at Hoover High School when their daughter Elizabeth was born in 1997 and taught part time at Jeff State. By 2003 she was back in the high school classroom, this time at the new Spain Park High School with its first class of seniors. She soon brought back the Shakespeare elective class she’d first taught at Hoover High—the only class she taught Elizabeth in when she was a student at Spain Park.
Since 1998, Richard has primarily taught A.P. U.S. History but also instructed religion and philosophy electives and a law academy class. In fact, when the current curriculum was introduced, he suggested it be a two-year course, looping the same students from 10th to 11th grade, and that’s just what he’s done most every year since then.
“When you have the looping like that you get really close, and so his classes bond in different ways with each other and with him,” Jill says. Which explains the T-shirts and as well as another gift he has, a stuffed bear wearing a vest and glasses that plays a student’s recording of an imitation of Richard talking about a brouhaha—a word he likes to use to refer to a conflict—and a backpack that held notes from the students that gave it to him.
In her three decades teaching high school, Jill went from days with no computers in a classroom where she had to referee use of black and yellow CliffsNotes books to days where each student has a computer that can fit in their pocket with countless plot summaries accessible. But even with all those changes, her enthusiasm for “selling” a love of literature has never died or even wavered, from Animal Farm and Things Fall Apart with ninth graders to Beowulf and Macbeth with seniors.
Plus, as Richard notes, studies show kids who read fiction become more empathetic and more caring. As to his own subject, “It illustrates what it means to be human, so we understand how we got to where we are and how we interact with one another,” he says.
Today as both teachers reflect on their years in the classroom, Richard can talk about students who went on to receive their doctorates in history and Jill about students whose own children she would teach and more. She taught one former student’s three sons at Spain Park, and several former students later taught with her. Another former student’s wife gave their daughter Elizabeth her first job. Still another former student’s wife, who was later a colleague, told her the only two books her husband kept from high school were Night and To Kill a Mockingbird—both from her class.
At the end of the day, “I guess I am a very selfish teacher because I love the stuff I teach,” Jill says. We’re not convinced “selfish” is the right word here, but the love is more than evident for the decades of students both she and Richard taught.