Daughter of POW Withheld Desks to Teach Students a Very American Lesson

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The story of Martha Cothren is one you don’t want to forget. It’s safe to say that some of the most influential people in our lives are our teachers. There is always that one teacher won’t forget from the lessons you learned that year. Whether it was an educational or a life lesson, they are imprinted in your brain. In September 2005, Martha Cothren decided to start off the school year slightly different as most do. As Social Studies teacher at Robinson High School in Little Rock, she wanted to teach her students a very American lesson, and her actions are praised ever since.

On the first day of school, with permission from the school superintendent, the principle, and building supervisor, Martha Cothren decided to remove all the desks in her classroom. Every single one, meaning students wouldn’t have anywhere to sit. When her first period arrived at her classroom, the students asked where the desks were, afraid they were in the wrong classroom. Cothren smiled and simply replied, “You can’t have a desk until you tell me how you earn the right to sit at a desk.”

Martha Cothren Desk Story 2005
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Okay, when I first heard this story, I admit that I wasn’t too sure where it was going and found it a bit bizarre. After reading what the kids answered, honestly, I would have answered exactly as these children did if I was in that situation. Many believed they would receive the desk if they got good grades, or behaved well. Yet, Cothren continued denying the student’s answers, letting the day pass by with still no desk in the classroom. The kids were shocked at her actions, causing them to call their parents. Television news crews to gather at the school to report about the crazy teacher who “had taken all the desks out of her room.”

Final period came and as the puzzled students arrived at the classroom and sat on the floor, Cothren explained how no one was able to tell her what he or she could do to earn the right in sit at the desk, so she decided to tell them. In one move, Cothren walked towards the door of the classroom and opened it. One by one, 27 U.S. veterans in uniform walked into the classroom, each carrying one desk. The veterans began to place the school desk in a row and would walk over and stand along the wall when they were done. By the time the last veteran set the final desk, kids began to understand Cothran’s reason. Perhaps, for the first time in their lives, they saw how to earn their right to sit at a desk.

Cothren explained to the students her decision, stating,

“You didn’t earn the right to sit at these desks. These heroes did it for you. They placed the desks here for you. They went halfway around the world, giving up their education and interrupting their careers and families so you could have the freedom you have. Now, it’s up to you to sit in them. It is your responsibility to learn, to be good students, to be good citizens. They paid the price so that you could have the freedom to get an education. Don’t ever forget it.”

Due to Cothren’s actions, she was awarded the Veterans of Foreign Wars Teacher of the Year for the State of Arkansas in 2006. The daughter of a World War II POW, it’s easy to see why this lesson especially mattered to her. Every year, students in Cothren’s classroom sends care packages to U.S. military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you think? Was the lesson a successful teaching lesson? I sure think so. Let’s all aim to be like Ms. Cothren!

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