Itawamba County D.A.R.E. Officer Terry Fortune talks to Itawamba Attendance Center sixth grade students during the school’s D.A.R.E. graduation program. It was the last such program of Fortune’s 14-year career teaching the local anti-drug education program and a bittersweet half-hour for the longtime law enforcement officer, who’s seen a generation of kids come and go. Usually terse in demeanor, Fortune was visibly emotional during the ceremony. Speaking briefly of his history, he said he feels he’s made a difference in the community: “There have been a few to slip through the cracks, but overall, it’s been good.”
“Being a kid is hard.”
In his many years as Itawamba County’s D.A.R.E. Officer, Terry Fortune has seen a lot of kids through some of the most potentially-difficult times in their young lives. Sixth grade is the beginning of a transition, those precarious preteen years in which the shine of childhood has begun to rub away. There are a lot of challenges just around the corner. Fortune always prided himself in being someone to whom young students could look up to for a bit of guidance.
Literally look up to, by the way. For those who’ve never had the pleasure to speak with Fortune face-to-face, he’s approximately 18-feet-tall, give or take a few inches. In the recent-retiree’s 14 years teaching the local version of the nation’s most prominent anti-drug and bullying program, he’s used his towering presence and booming voice to his advantage. He’s prone to surprising his students with sudden outbursts. When he bumps into former students out in public, he often greets them with a cocked eyebrow, an incredulous glare, as if they could have possibly been up to something, and a friendly but intense impromptu interrogation.
“I love to aggravate the students,” Fortune said with a wry smile. He said it in his usual bone-dry way, which makes it difficult to tell if he’s being genuine or facetious. Likely, it’s a bit of both. It’s a tone that’s served him well over the years. It’s ingratiated him to his students. Fortune may be an authority figure and a giant, but he’s got a sense of humor about him.
Fortune said he gives his students a lot of leeway, tries to talk to them as the young adults they’ll soon be.
“A lot of people think kids don’t know anything, don’t know what they’re doing. They’d be surprised,” Fortune said. “You can’t be a fake. Kids will see right through that.”
The longtime law enforcement officer said he’s always appreciated that about kids. A kid’s going to be his or herself, no matter what. Fakery comes at a minimum.
“I’ve enjoyed working with kids,” he said. “As I tell my students, they make my life interesting.”
It’s part of what drew him to the program in the first place. Around 2004, then-sheriff Phillip Crane asked Fortune, a cop with the Fulton Police Department, if he’d be interested in taking up the local D.A.R.E. program. At first, Fortune wasn’t sure. When he sat in on a program for himself, he saw for himself the easy rapport the D.A.R.E. officer had with her students, Fortune new it was for him.
“Just seeing how much she related to the kids … It just clicked. It seemed like something I’d enjoy doing,” he said. “I made my mind up then and there that I wanted to do it.”
Training for the program was short, but intense. Over a hectic two weeks, Fortune was instructed on the D.A.R.E. program’s curriculum, the kind of social pressures children face, how to talk to and relate with kids and the basics of public speaking. It was a lot to absorb, Fortune said.
“All through my initial training, I thought ‘What have I gotten myself into,’” he said.
His instructors tossed one thing after another at him – facts and figures, what to do, what not to do. By the end of the program, he was tasked with giving a two-minute presentation on a topic provided by his instructors. His was hats.
Looking back, it all seems so long ago, and yet … not at all. Everybody knows the saying about time and having fun. Terry Fortune has had a lot of fun being D.A.R.E. officer. It’s all gone by in the blink of an eye.
“It’s been an enjoyable 14 years overall,” he said.
For the most part, it’s been a successful 14 years, too. Every kid who’s said “No” to drugs, stood up to a bully and kept her nose clean is, in Fortune’s book, a success story.
Of course, there have been outliers. Kids are going to screw up, get in trouble. Depending on the end result, that big pill to swallow.
Fortune’s had to lock up former students from time to time. That’s never fun, and it can wear on the mind.
“You start playing the ‘what if’ game,” he said. “I know I’ve done the best I could, but I still feel like I could have done something different. I should have seen the warning signs.”
But for every kid who, for one reason or another, has slipped through his fingers, there have been dozens who have taken Fortune’s lessons to heart. It’s not that every kid in Itawamba County who has gone on to a lead clean, productive life has done so wholly because of Terry Fortune, but maybe at least a little bit.
One former student has even become a D.A.R.E. officer himself. Fortune probably can claim a lot of credit for that, and it feels good, he said.
Asked what he hoped his legacy will be, Fortune … shock of shocks … seemed stumped. It took him a moment to answer, and when he did, his answer was simple.
“That I tried to do the best I could,” he said.
Like he said at the beginning, being a kid is hard. The transition out of childhood is full of difficult choices; Fortune hopes some of the lessons he’s imparted over the years has helped making the right decisions just a bit easier.
“They say if you save one student, you’ve done your job,” Fortune said. That simply won’t do for him.
“I guess I’m greedy,” he said. “I want more.”
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