HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — As Helen Freeman spoke to her class on a Thursday morning at Huntington High School, she used a phrase that has embodied her entire teaching career.
“I know what you’re capable of,” Freeman, a teacher of 37 years, stated to one of her students when discussing roles for an upcoming play.
Outgoing, charismatic, enthusiastic and sometimes downright pushy, Freeman knows who she is and doesn’t back away from it, which directly affects her students in ways she might never have imagined.
“I really felt like I was a part of something here, and that’s all I wanted was to be a part of something,” senior Gabriella Bellomy said. “I made the effort. She believed in me and helped me believe in myself and made an environment that was comfortable to where everyone can be themselves.”
Freeman teaches both theater and speech and debate at Huntington High School, overseeing more than 200 students on a daily basis. It is no small task, she said, but it’s what keeps her going even after nearly four decades in the classroom.
“I would’ve never stayed in this with all the bureaucracy and how it’s changed. Education is not the same,” Freeman said. “I teach because I love kids and I always felt like it was my mission, like I was supposed to do it. I was supposed to try and make a difference. Cheesy as it may be, that’s the only reason I do this.”
Students who have gone through her classroom know what to expect. It’s not the typical instructional time experienced in other subject areas, but one that requires team building, critical thinking, problem solving and finding your voice in new ways.
For some, Freeman comes on strong. But if they stick around long enough, the atmosphere grows on them.
“I didn’t know if I’d get along with her and I’m an outgoing person, and then when I got to know her it was unreal. She’s the nicest person I’ve met in years,” freshman Rachelle Singer said.
Singer recently earned the role of a townsperson in an upcoming theater production of “Beauty and the Beast,” which will be performed this spring by HHS students. It will be her first production where she was a part of the acting cast.
“I get really nervous when I sing because I don’t think I sound good, and when I auditioned (for ‘Beauty and the Beast’), something came out of me that she knew was there but I couldn’t find,” Singer said. “She was the one that helped me find that motive, that voice, and I’ve been really happy with myself.”
After not doing any productions last year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, HHS students will have performed three by the end of this school year.
“I love kids, and especially after COVID, they need that love. They missed out on social interaction, so I have been working harder than I ever have worked to make up for some things,” Freeman said. “We’ve done two plays and are already on a third. They have the talent … and missed out on a whole year of their life.”
Her work doesn’t go unnoticed. In January, she was given the Superintendent’s Superhero Award, which is handed out monthly to a district employee who goes above and beyond.
The nomination for the award has to come from someone inside the school, be it a student or another employee, and the winner is selected by Superintendent Ryan Saxe.
District administrators make a point to recognize these individuals in front of their students. Freeman was surprised on the very auditorium stage where she has shaped so many high school experiences for students.
“I’m out of the box and they aren’t ready for that. Some kids don’t do well with it and they leave, but for the majority of them, it’s impactful,” Freeman said of her teaching style. “I’m not going to quit being myself for anyone. No one. Nobody is going to stop me from being who I am because that’s what makes me who I am and makes me happy with them.”
Freeman’s programs are successful. The speech and debate team recently placed second in the state competition and qualified for the national competition, which is scheduled to take place in May. The theater program regularly puts on shows for the student body and community.
It has taken time for the programs to grow into what they have, but Freeman said it’s time well spent.
“Speech and debate is a full-time job. Theater is two full-time jobs. We really should have a second person here because I have 220 students. That’s a lot of kids. There are 40 in speech and debate alone,” Freeman said.
She’s outnumbered but still finds the time to care for each student and help them grow outside of their shells. Freshman Chloe Smalley has performed all her life, and her path crossed with Freeman’s at the age of 4 when she assisted in a production.
“My first impression of her, I was probably 4 years old and thought she was a really loving grandmother, which sounds funny, but with a cast of 30 people she knows how to take care of every individual person’s needs, and that was really something that stuck out to me,” Smalley said.
It’s the kind of legacy that reaches far beyond the auditorium at Huntington High School. Current and former students share stories with others and have encouraged them to get plugged in with the theater program or speech and debate team because of what she did for them.
“I knew she was really kind and had a really good heart. I knew she was kind of crazy, like the good crazy, with a really good personality and very happy and uplifting even if she’s stressed,” ninth-grader Lilly Robinson said.
Whether it’s a student’s first year or fourth year, it doesn’t take long to discover how much Freeman cares about her school and her students and the pride she has in both.
“I’ve never seen a teacher who so genuinely cares for each of her students,” Bellomy said. “One of her phrases is, ‘Keep it simple, stupid,’ which just means don’t overthink things so much. Just go out there and do it, and also, the stupider you feel, the better it looks. Stop holding back and go for it.”
Bellomy will graduate this spring, but said she knows the impact her teacher has had on her life will last much longer than her walk across the stage at commencement.
“That’s probably the best thing because you aren’t really appreciated a lot in any educational situation,” Freeman said. “The kids are what makes you want to teach. Sometimes they don’t really appreciate you either, but they realize one day when they leave how much was given up for them.”