By William P. Thompson
From the cottonfields of west Texas to high school classrooms and the halls of justice, Barbara George has impacted the lives of area teens. In 1966, George became a physical education teacher at Portales High School. She left teaching in 1991 but became the Portales Teen Court coordinator in 1997.
The Levelland, Texas native’s first job was “pulling cotton.”
“I eventually got a teaching degree from Texas Tech,” George said. “In those days, the career options for women were, teacher, nurse and secretary.”
In 1966, George and her husband moved to Portales from Farmington so her husband could pursue an advanced degree at Eastern New Mexico University. George took the teaching job at Portales High School where she eventually became known for nearly three decades of tough love as a p.e. teacher, track coach, mock-trial coach and cheerleading coach.
“I was a highly-disciplined teacher,” George said. “The kids in my classes knew where they stood with me. They didn’t run wild.”
George, a member of the National Education Association (NEA) Hall of Fame, said there are probably as many folks in Portales who dislike her as like her, but there is no denying the letters she still receives from former students who express their appreciation for her guidance.
“I have lots of ex-students who come to see me,” George said. “I flew to one former student’s retirement ceremony from the Navy out in California.”
George still corresponds with a former student from a class she taught in Farmington in the mid 60’s.
“She was a heavy girl, and she wanted to be on the gymnastics team, but the coach thought she was too big. I told the coach that I knew the girl could do it, but the coach didn’t believe me. I ran an intramural gymnastics meet and the girl won the competition. The coach let her on the team and she became a state champion. She said to me, ‘I knew you believed in me.’”
George believes love is a key component of proper discipline, but firmness is also a must. The teen court program she runs gives first-time juvenile offenders a chance to keep a clean record by performing community service. George said teen court is like a fork in the road. Most juveniles will learn their lesson. Some will engage in a lifetime of crime.
“I’d say we are successful with about 85 percent of the kids,” George said. “Teens need to know what’s right and what’s wrong. I think they want discipline. Kids need to see adults that stand up and say, ‘That’s not right.’”
George said old-fashioned values are what work.
“Parents need to teach their kids how to work and they need to take them to church so they have a good, strong moral background,” she said. “I get so tired of kids saying there is nothing to do in this town. There are all kinds of school activities. Kids today have too much access to free time. TV, alcohol and drugs.”
George said teens today are not much different than teens in past decades except that society has become too laissez-faire with regard to teen behavior. Drugs and alcohol are more readily available today. She said drinking and drugs were virtually unheard of for west Texas teens when she was growing up. As a teen, George said fighting was about the only trouble she knew.
“I got in trouble in the sixth grade for fighting when I was shoved at the water fountain,” she said.
She believes teens would appreciate greater adult supervision these days.
“People say that teens are different but everyday they show me that they want to be loved. They want to be cared about,” she said.
George also operates a driver instruction business and has the opportunity to hear about current teen life from new drivers.
“I was sitting beside one girl who said she estimated that 75 percent of Portales teens have taken a drink. I told her I didn’t know if that could be true, but she said there was a party here and a party there and so now I wonder if she might be right.”
George said she doesn’t judge the youths who show up in her office at the municipal court building.
“I just say, ‘Thanks Lord, there but for the grace of God go I.’”
Amy Flynn, a Portales High School senior who volunteers as a teen ‘attorney’ in teen court, said George is a catalyst for teens in trouble.
“She helps them by making sure they get their lives back on track,” she said.
Former Portales High School student Sheryl Scott Jonsson said George was a big encouragement to her during her high school years. Jonnson eventually became general manager of KOSA-TV in Odessa, Texas.
“You hear about people like her. You read about them. They put so much love into what they do and they throw themselves head first into what they do,” Jonsson said.
George sometimes sees children of former students enter the teen court program. She said it’s a little embarassing for the parents.
“One girl’s mother was a former student of mine,” George said. “After the girl’s court session I put my arm around the girl and said,” ‘You’re not going to disappoint me are you?’ She said, ‘I’m not going to disappoint you.’ Her mother had tears in her eyes.”