@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images COURTESY MARTHA COTHREN
There were no desks in Martha Cothren’s Little Rock classroom on the first day of school in 2005. She’d come prepared, draping sheets across the floor so that her students at Joe T. Robinson High would have a place to sit. If she was nervous, she didn’t show it. She slid her thumb across the American flag pin - she wore it every day - patted the back of her blond hair, and stood watching the clock tick down the minutes until the first bell rang.
When it did, the buzz started. Some thought the lack of seating was due to budget cuts. Others speculated Martha was up to something, they just didn’t know what.
Martha let her students fidget, asking them to work out the riddle. All she would tell them was this: “You’re guaranteed a free education, not a desk.” They quizzed her, asking if good grades or good behavior might buy them a seat. She said no. “You could just see the confusion on their faces,” Martha said.
When the bell rang again, the kids spilled out, a few shaking their heads. Martha expected them to call their parents and complain. She expected the parents, at least some of them, to call the school, or better yet the media. A few reporters, she speculated, could only help her cause.
Martha’s scheme had formed over the course of the summer. The previous year some of the teachers told her they’d been having trouble getting kids to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance. “It is Arkansas state law that the Pledge be recited each morning in public schools. Of course, I’d never had trouble, but I coached girls basketball for twenty years and there’s something about the word ‘coach’ that intimidates kids. So if I said stand up they stood up. I know there’s a Supreme Court case that says you can’t force a student to recite the Pledge. I wasn’t going to do that; however, I knew I could take the chairs away and that would require them to stand.”
With that revelation, half her plan was set. She’d take away the desks, the kids would stand, and at least for a day the problem would be solved.
The only complication was that the kids liked her too much to grumble outside the school walls. By the time lunch ended, Martha knew the media wasn’t coming if she didn’t call. “So I ended up contacting the major TV stations and paper here and I didn’t tell them what I was going to do, I simply told them there was something going on that they might be interested in.
“By that last class, word had spread: Coach Cothren had lost her mind. Kids were coming to see what was going on. Mine’s the first room by the front door, Room Number One, so I had quite the crowd. I was really flying by the seat of my pants; I didn’t really know how it was all going to play out.
“When the news crews showed up, the first thing they asked was where the desks were. I said we were discussing that. It was the very end of the day, and I had taken the time to choreograph the final scene. There were only about four minutes left in the day. That’s when I said, ‘All day long you’ve asked how you earn your desk. It’s time for your answer.’
“And the door swung open and these veterans filed in, each carrying a desk. They put them in rows and then stood at attention lining the wall.” Martha paused for a moment. “That was too much for me. I had tears pouring down my cheeks, just from looking at the soldiers’ expressions. And I told the kids, ‘You don’t have to earn your desk. These men have done it for you.’
“One of the men was a World War II veteran who was a father of one of our teachers. He couldn’t carry his desk. One of our teachers is in the National Guard and she was in her camo’s and she carried his desk for him. There was dead silence in the room, and then the bell rang.”
The kids, who normally would have rushed to leave, instead went to the veterans, then lined up to thank them. “I’ve never been so proud,” Martha said. “You could hear the reverence in their voices, like they’d never realized what had been done for them. I was crying, the vets were crying, and the kids were crying.
“Kids from in the hallway started coming in, and they went to each one. The teachers followed them. One of the cameramen called me over and he said, ‘Ma’am, I want to tell you, I’m a Vietnam veteran and I’ve never been welcomed home until today.’ I thought I’d cried all the tears I had, but when he said that I cried some more.”\
The man behind the camera had no way of knowing what he’d done for Martha. When she was a high school student in the small town of Dierks, Arkansas, she fell in love with a boy, five years older, who left to serve in the Navy during the Vietnam War. The two planned their wedding. “Danny made it all the way home,” Martha said, “but before we could marry, he was in a car wreck and he didn’t survive.
“I think that set the stage for what I did with my life, teaching all these years, working with kids. And I think my patriotism started with my dad. He was the twenty-fourth American who was captured as a prisoner of war by the Germans in World War II. He’d been hit in both the arm and the leg when he was thrown out of an airplane; he walked with a limp the rest of his life.
“He was a gunner. He landed in a French field and the French were running toward him, and the Germans were coming for him and they reached him first. It happened on October 9, 1942. He spent the rest of the war in the POW camp. I knew very early the cost of freedom.
“He came home and he felt blessed that he’d survived. He returned to officiating football. As far as we can determine, he was the longest acting football official in world history. He refereed for fifty-seven years. His right kneecap had been splintered when he was shot down. He’d wrap his leg religiously before every game. I knew he suffered, but he was so determined to give back to those kids.
“I felt like I was able to honor him that day when the desks were gone. And there’s that part of me that still remains in love with Danny, and I was able to honor the Vietnam veterans as well. I live with what-ifs, just like everybody. I think what my life would be like if he’d lived long enough for us to get married and have kids. I believe God always has a bigger plan. I’d not have been able to touch the number of lives I have living in that little town in southwest Arkansas. You don’t always understand God’s plan but you make the best of what comes along.
“Of all the things that have happened in my life, that day was one of the most moving. I had the kids write essays that I never returned. There was so much raw emotion in them. I think it changed a lot of things for those kids. I still hear from them and they all say, ‘I remember the day when the veterans showed up.’”
She stands in her classroom where light spills in through the stained glass window, complete with an American eagle, that someone from across the country sent after hearing her story. On the ceiling is a squadron of model fighter jets the kids construct each year and then leave behind as a reminder of what they’ve learned.
It’s a good day; Martha’s just found a soldier who could use a few letters from home. Before the hour ends, her students will start writing. But right now it’s time for the Pledge of Allegiance in Room Number One at Joe T. Robinson High. Chairs scratch across the classroom floor. Feet shuffle. Everyone in the room is standing.