Rivergate Teacher Celebrates Long Adventist Career

By Rachel Scribner

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going,” the Rivergate students sing enthusiastically. One of the teachers adds sign language to the song, his hands floating with the music. It could be any Friday morning worship if it weren’t for the mysterious cloth-draped easel at the front, the green and white decorations draped around the room, or the letters on the wall that spell “Happy Birthday Mr. Smith.”

Ken Smith, a tall man in any crowd, towers over his first grade students as his hands fly through the song. Some of the  children barely reach his waist, but they all seem perfectly at ease. Smith closes his eyes to sing a favorite line with conviction, but opens them just in time to give one small pupil a wave and a grin.

This chapel is being held to honor a special teacher. Smith has worked in Adventist education for 38 years. Thirty years ago, he started teaching first and second grades at Rivergate Adventist Elementary School, and he’s been there ever since. Smith has even taught children whose parents were in his class. This program is a thank you for his work: quietly shaping lives for a generation.

One of Smith’s goals is building strong, confident readers. He glows as he remembers the students who struggled at first, but later loved to read. “It’s gone by fast,” he says. “Every day goes by fast.” Smith gets frequent visits from former students, often to thank him for his creative teaching and for their solid start in literacy. One student said she had a full college scholarship, thanks in part to the reading and study skills she gained in his class. “It’s like the song,” Smith says, “the wise man built his house upon the rock.”

Smith may build the foundation, but he insists that he’s only one piece of an integrated team that guides Rivergate’s students and focuses every subject on Jesus. That focus is everything to Smith. “There’s such a huge difference with God and Jesus at the heart of it all,” he says, “that’s why all the staff are here, and that’s why the parents have their students come here.”

As the chapel comes to a close, a teacher calls Smith to the front and uncovers the mysterious easel. She reveals a beautiful painting of a tree, with the fingerprints of Rivergate’s students for leaves. Among the many green leaves is a smattering of red prints, from Smith’s current class. Fingerprints seem, somehow, like an appropriate gift for the man who sings with his hands.

While he has their attention, Smith asks the students to join him in a sign language song. They stand and start to sign. Almost all of them learned this song when they were in his class. Smith stands at the front, his hands diving and swooping

like birds as the children follow his lead. Beside him sits the fingerprint painting with an inscription that reads: “A teacher takes a hand, opens a mind, and touches a heart.”