It would be hard to get much farther from corporate America than Knoxville's Laurel High School, a funky brick house in Fort Sanders where a copy of UT's 1997 football schedule on the office bulletin board is covered up by fliers for kundalini yoga classes and drum circles.
But the small private school--the only local survivor of the "alternative" education wave of the 1970s--got a nod of approval last week from the decidedly corporate and aggressively nonalternative offices of Wal-Mart. The national discount store chain named Laurel teacher Margaret Scanlan one of its 1,500 "Teachers of the Year" and gave the school a $500 check for educational activities.
"We're going to use it for cultural field trips and also on some texts," says Claudia White, the school's principal and only full-time employee.
The recognition is a boost for a school that has been going about its business for 26 years with only intermittent acknowledgment from the outside world. Scanlan, a local artist with a master's degree in education who has taught art, poetry, and other courses at Laurel High for 17 years, says she came to the school after two years in the public school system.
"I saw the one place where you could actually work towards the [educational] ideal," she says. "I've seen so many people get excited about learning.
"It's people like Graham," she adds, waving to a young man with a short mohawk and a polite grin who's just entered the school's office. "He appeals to me. This is not an ordinary guy. He's got much more personality than an ordinary student."
At a school with 25 free-thinking students and up to 16 part-time faculty, rapport between teachers and pupils is easy and friendly. Scanlan pauses several times during the conversation to greet students, admiring one girl's 10-inch-high blond hair spikes and giving an encouraging hug to another. While Scanlan insists her award is really a tribute to the whole school, students say she deserves the honor.
"She's really sweet, and she doesn't really criticize you or anything," says 16-year-old Anna Potter. "I took one of her poetry classes, and it didn't really matter if your poem was good. She made you feel good just for doing it."
"She helped me to understand Shakespeare more," adds Kirk Muensterman, an 18-year-old who commutes from Gatlinburg each day. "I never could do that before."
As for the unlikelihood of the small school attracting the attention of the Wal-Mart empire, White just grins.
"We're trying to use all sorts of local resources to help us encourage our teachers," she says.