A boisterous, energetic group of boys invades J.D. Clark’s classroom at Bowie High School, lunch bags in hand.
Some begin scarfing down food, while others crack jokes and give their buddies a hard time. Although their enthusiasm is contagious, it’s a commotion of energy that’s hard to corral.
The door swings wide.
“Hey, Clark! Do you know what day it is?” Spenser Meekins shouts as he enters the room.
J.D. is talking with another student and glances in Meekins’ direction, grinning. About a minute later he replies.
“No, Spenser. What day is it?” he asks, playing along.
“It’s 50-cent corn dog day!” the freshman shouts, shaking a bag of Sonic corn dogs.
The room erupts in laughter.
Lunch with Clark is a “thing” at BHS. Some of these boys have been eating lunch with him every day since they were 12 years old. His classroom has become a safe place for them to ask questions, express themselves or just horse around, but as the school year draws to a close, the boys are left to wonder where they’ll eat lunch next year.
Clark is not coming back to BHS.
The teacher, who is also mayor of Chico and the Republican nominee for Wise County judge, said it’s a new season in his life. Although it was a difficult decision, he’s decided to step away from the classroom to pursue other opportunities, win or lose in November.
“I’m going to miss these guys,” he said. “I wish there was a way to do it all, and I just can’t.”
He’s leaving behind more than a classroom; he’s leaving young men he considers brothers.
Clark, 28, and “the guys” as he calls them, have grown up together.
On Aug. 8, 2008, he graduated from the University of North Texas. Just 10 days later he found himself at the helm of a junior high classroom.
“I told them the first day, ‘You be cool, and I’ll be cool,’ and we’ve just kind of stuck with that in every situation,” he said.
In his second year at Bowie Junior High, the principal asked teachers to provide an activity for students once a week during the lunch hour, and after some careful consideration and discussions with administration, Clark decided to start Guy Talk – in addition to interacting with the boys in English, journalism and guitar classes.
Clark said that he felt boys of this age were underserved as far as programs to help them deal with this sometimes tumulutous time in their lives.
BHS Principal Kelly Shackelford, who was junior high principal at the time, said the idea took away from Clark’s personal time, but it was something he felt strongly about.
“They can ask him anything they want, talk about whatever, or just watch a movie and eat lunch,” said Shackelford, whose son, Carter, is one of Clark’s students. “They’ll ask him all kinds of stuff. They ask him all the questions they won’t ask their parents.”
Clark said it started out just talking about whatever was on the boys’ minds.
“Within reason,” he said, “which gets pretty sketchy with seventh-grade boys.”
Over time he became a trusted confidante, and the boys would come to him outside of Guy Talk to ask a question, vent frustrations or lament a lost love. They started coming for lunch every day.
“We just clicked,” Clark said. “Me and a different group of boys, it might not have worked. I think I was put exactly where I needed to be, and I think I was put where they needed me to be as well.”
In the fall of 2012, Clark moved to the high school, along with his boys, and the daily lunch tradition continued.
Junior Cooper Cantwell, who first had Clark in seventh grade, said they think of him as an older brother.
“He’s young, so we can relate,” he said. “And he actually talked to us, he didn’t treat us like we were kids.”
Junior Lane Shields said Clark has taught them “a lot of things” and not just about world history and theater arts, the classes he was currently teaching.
“We’ve had him since seventh grade, and he’s really cared for the students,” he said. “He’s more than a teacher. He’s a mentor. He’s also taught me a lot about how to be a good person, setting goals and what it takes to achieve them.”
Junior Dylan Slade, who takes an interest in world events, said Clark has helped him learn how to think independently and form his own opinions on issues instead of simply accepting what’s presented to him.
“He can inspire you pretty good,” another boy called out.
“He taught me how to be a good man,” said another.
The boys show an uncanny ability, at 15, 16 and 17 years old, to express themselves and talk about their emotions.
But it’s not long before they throw in a few wisecracks.
“He’s not athletic … at all!” they said, as Slade recounted a dodgeball game in which Clark did not fare well.
Clark said when they found out he was going to ride a steer at this year’s PBR event in Wise County, they were worried.
“‘You broke two ribs playing donkey basketball,'” he recalled them saying. “‘This may not be a good idea!'”
He said spending time with these boys is humbling.
“They’re bluntly honest, and they’ll call me out on things,” he said. “There’s no ego-stroking.
“I never guessed when I was 22 that we’d be sitting here having this conversation, and I’d be so sad about leaving these kids.”
Clark’s students have always known he had a passion for public service. In fact, he was first elected mayor during his second year at Bowie ISD, and he said that generated many questions and discussions about people working within their communities.
He said as he has campaigned for county judge and become active in other civic groups, he’s discussed the process every step of the way.
They’ve been quick to offer “advice” and have taken a genuine interest in his pursuits.
Slade, Cantwell and a third student, senior Levi Wallace, attended Clark’s election watch party the night of the primaries in March. Although it wasn’t a typical night out for teens, it was one they wouldn’t have missed.
“He’s always there for us in everything, so we wanted to do the same for him,” Cantwell said.
That night a friend and fellow teacher also presented him with a gift that was to be opened at the end of the evening. To Clark’s surprise, it was filled with heartfelt notes from students and their parents. They shared things they wanted him to know – win or lose.
Also inside the box was a Bible, flagged with dozens of Post-It notes marking students’ favorite verses and those they hope he will keep close to his heart.
Although the boys say he teaches them what it means to be a good person and a good citizen, Clark said he feels he became more aware of those qualities by coming to know them.
“I feel like I learned that by working with them,” he said. “I’m always trying to be the kind of guy they expect me to be, and they inspire me. They push me, and seeing the world through their eyes and knowing all their situations and about some of their home lives, it’s just a constant reminder that we need to do a better job building a better world.
“I’ll miss that,” he said. “There’s a pureness about them about how people should be. Even though they’re in high school and make stupid decisions, most of them still think that people should just be good.”
Clark said this week was bittersweet.
The students from his first year of teaching graduated from Bowie High School Friday night. The seniors recognized Clark at an awards ceremony two weeks ago, and Friday morning “the guys” – students from all classifications – presented him with a guitar each of them had signed.
“You were my first kids, and you’ll be my last group,” he told the seniors at the awards ceremony last week. “You were 12, and I was 22 when we started this, and I think we’ve all held together pretty well. And we’re all better looking, too!,” he joked.
“I love you.”
The junior boys are sad that he’ll miss their senior year, but also seem genuinely happy for whatever pursuit he takes on next.
“It stinks, but this is his dream,” Cantwell said. “This is what he’s always wanted to do.”
Slade agreed that it would be strange not to have him on campus for their senior year.
“You never know what you have ’til it’s gone,” he said. “I know that’s overused and clich , but I think that’s how it will feel next year.”
Other students had a harder time expressing themselves.
“Ehhh … he’s good to have around,” Kevin Stallcup said. In Clark’s words, he and Stallcup have butted heads through the years but have a mutual respect for each other and are actually quite close.
Stallcup joked around for a while longer before gathering his backpack to leave.
Shortly thereafter, government and economics teacher Candice Mercer popped her head in the room.
“Kevin wanted me to come say nice things about you, J.D.,” she said. “He had some nice things … he just couldn’t say them.”
Before Clark had even started packing up his classroom, students were laying claim to posters on the wall, books on the shelves and even one-act play props, all seeking a keepsake – a reminder down the road of this teacher, this time in their lives.
This summer, Clark is taking a group of students to Italy, and he and the guys are already planning to meet for lunch once in awhile. Although the boys are left wondering where they’ll be without him, Clark is pondering the same thing.
“However our stars lined up, me and that group of guys – I think we were both what the other side needed at that time in our lives,” he said. “They’ve wondered out loud to me what they would be like if we hadn’t been together.
“I wonder the same thing about myself.”
SONG FOR HIS STUDENTS
Inspired by his students, J.D. Clark wrote the following song in 2011 as a group of his junior high students prepared to enter high school.
“What Makes a Man”
They have so many questions
So much they want to know
They come to me for answers
To show them where to go
When was your first kiss?
When did you start shaving?
What was your very first car?
Why do bad things
Happen to good people and
Do you still wish on stars?
What makes a man who people will remember?
What makes a man who people call great?
What makes a man who people will remember?
What makes a man who people call great?
I do my best to tell them
The few things I do know
I share my tales of glory
I share mistakes of my own
I watch them grow
Watch them run
Watch them trip and fall
I watch them do the best they can
Through their struggles, through their triumphs
They’re inspiring me
To try and be a better man
Someday they’re gonna leave here
Start journeys of their own
I’ll tell them that I love them
And send them down the road
And years from now
They’ll be up thinking late at night
And they’ll start to look back on their youth
I hope they realize not only how they needed me but
How much I needed them, too
Repeat chorus twice