In the spring of 2003, Jessica Wolfe was a Marietta High School junior in Mrs. Carolyn Featherston’s English class. Wolfe was required to write and submit an essay for the Red River Valley REA Youth Tour Contest. Her essay was chosen to compete in the finals round.

“I placed third or fourth, I can’t remember exactly which, but I still have the plaque somewhere,” Wolfe said.

Fast forward to the spring of 2023. Wolfe is now teaching junior English at her alma mater, and she required her students to write for the Youth Tour Contest. The writing project has changed quite a bit in the intervening years. This year, students were required to choose a societal issue of concern to them and write a letter to an elected official addressing that issue.

A few weeks ago, Wolfe was notified by REA’s Member Services Director KorDale Lornes that the letters of two of her students, Rachel Smee and Keagan Balch, had been selected to move to the finals round.

“When I found out, more than anything, I wished I could call Mrs. Featherston and tell her because I knew she would be thrilled,” Wolfe said, “but I couldn’t. It was a bittersweet moment for me.”

Featherston, who had retired after a lengthy and successful career at Marietta, passed away almost three years ago.

When Wolfe graduated from Marietta in 2004, she had no inkling that she would eventually return to Marietta to walk in her beloved Mrs. Featherston’s footsteps.

“I had thought about elementary education maybe, but not high school English,” laughed Wolfe.

Wolfe entered college, completed her associate’s, and – because she didn’t know what step to take next – quit college for a few years to take a job. After five years out, she decided it was time to get back into school.

“I’d had such great English teachers at Marietta, and that was something I always came back to,” explained Wolfe. “I was good at it, I enjoyed it, and my English teachers were always such an encouragement to me. Mrs. Featherston even told me that she thought I would make a good English teacher.”

Wolfe earned her English degree from East Central University in Ada and then came back to Marietta where she took a position working as a reading aide in the elementary school. After three years in that position, an opening for freshman English lured Wolfe to work as a high school teacher. This year, she was asked if she would move to junior English, which she did.

When the time for Youth Tour rolled around, there was never a question about whether or not she would require her students to participate.

“I told my kids, ‘I set this precedent for you 20 years ago, so you’d better bring home the hardware!’” Wolfe joked.

Wolfe is pleased with all her students’ efforts, but particularly those of Smee and Balch.

“While I got to write about something really easy: what my life would be like without electricity, this year’s contest was much more broad and civic-minded,” Wolfe said. “One of my kids wrote about access to mental health services for students, another wrote about the illegal trade of exotic animals. These are serious subjects, and the contest has grown to require students to think about things that are bigger than themselves, which I think is great.”

Almost any career Oklahoma teacher will share that their students’ success is their success. People don’t go into – and stay in – education for the applause or public admiration, and they sure don’t do it for the money. So for a teacher, what keeps them going is seeing their kids accomplish things, whether that’s learning in the classroom, going to college, getting the job they want, or winning a contest.

“My kids’ success makes me feel like I’ve done my job,” Wolfe said. “When I was notified that I had two finalists, I thought, ‘Maybe I’m doing something right.’”

On Thursday, March 23, Wolfe got to see two of her students compete in the finals round. Smee finished in fourth place and Balch in fifth. Both gained valuable experience in public speaking, won a nice cash prize, and have a letter that’s worthy of sending to their elected officials, should they choose to do so.

And they really, really made their teacher proud.