I know alma mater refers to a school, college or university we have graduated from, but I like the Latin definition better. From its Latin origin, alma mater is translated "nourishing or bountiful mother."
Barbara Louise Ward is the alma mater for six former Bryan Station High School students who all say she was the glue, and the prod, to help each of them earn college degrees. Three of them obtained their MBAs, and one of them is working toward his doctorate.
To honor her guidance and nurturing, the six men — Thomas Benford, Ryan Holmes, Jordan Lindsey, Clyde Madison, Christopher Seals and Phillip Thomas — have established a scholarship in her name which will be given to a Bryan Station senior who is headed to college.
"She is a great woman and an excellent teacher," Holmes said. "She taught us more than English. She taught us how to become men and professionals. She had that motherly figure and she took pride in her craft. That rubbed off on us, no matter if it was our schoolwork or a pickup game. She always said take pride in what you do."
"She is like a mother," he said. "She made sure we were doing what we were supposed to be doing."
Ward, who was named Fayette County High School Teacher of the Year in 2004, the same year the men graduated, said the honor has brought tears to her eyes.
"You never know how you affect kids," said Ward, who retired from Fayette County schools for the second time on March 7 after 39½ years.
"I tried to do my best. These guys were already friends, but there was something different about those guys. I didn't mind doing anything for them."
Most of them had been students in Ward's advanced language arts class, even though a couple of them struggled.
Ward, 60, noticed something in them and paired them on assignments and admonished them to look out for one another, to be responsible for one another, and they took that seriously.
"I told them if one falls the others have to pick him up," she said.
And they did.
"I have dyslexia," Thomas said. "English was hard for me. My friends would work with me and help me with homework. They were always there for me."
As was his teacher.
"Phillip said a teacher told him he was dumb," Ward recalled. "That teacher should have lost his or her certification. He wasn't dumb. He just didn't learn the way other students learned."
For Madison, the struggle was an unstable home life.
"She was tough on me, which is what I needed," Madison said.
Once, when the class work seemed too difficult, Madison asked for a hall pass with the intention of going to his counselor to ask to drop out of advanced English.
"I couldn't keep up," he said. "She chased me down the hallway and wouldn't let me go to the counselor."
"I wouldn't let him give up," Ward said. "We had some smart kids. It had nothing to do with what section of town you live in."
So Madison worked harder.
"She nominated me for the most improved student award in English," Madison said. "I ended up winning a computer and printer. My family didn't have any money. I couldn't afford that.
"It was small things like that that went above and beyond being a teacher," he said.
It wasn't a difficult decision to honor the teacher who opened her classroom as a safe haven for lunch and time to relax and bond during the school day. That was also a time for them to hear her admonish them to stick together and to always give back.
"It is not easy coming from the high school that has the bad reputation despite all its successes," Seals said of Bryan Station. "Those times helped me to fight against the stereotypes. This is our way to give back to the school and the teacher we love."
The men came up with the idea for the scholarship about two months ago as a means of celebrating their 10-year reunion.
The first "Bryan Station High School's Barbara Ward Scholarship" for $500 will be awarded May 27. The men said as their success grows, so will the scholarship, with hopes of giving out more than one each year.
"We're not successful to the point where we'd like to be," said Benford, a single father of twins born shortly after he graduated from high school. "But we're to the point we have full-time jobs, except for Chris who is in grad school and trying to pay off debt. At this point we have a little cash flow."
And they are doing with it what their teacher said they should do it.
"These guys are starting out small, but to give up their money to give to somebody else, that is amazing," Ward said. "They all graduated from college. Think of that. That sounds like something you hear on TV."
That sounds like something a "nourishing and bountiful" mother would say.