Nathaniel Shelton has a knack for helping young people find their talents.
It’s a skill he honed during his years as a teacher and social worker for the Gainesville City Schools.
Shelton, 76, retired in 2005 but still works as a substitute teacher for Gainesville middle and high schools. The Lowndes County, Miss., native moved to Gainesville in 1964 when he began working at the segregated E.E. Butler High School.
Shelton said he enjoys working with “challenging kids” and tries to follow the old adage of “looking beyond faults to see the need.”
“I see the need and the problems they create, but I also feel that underneath all of that it’s just a means of expression,” Shelton said. “They don’t know how to do things in more of a constructive way, so they just do what they feel in that moment.”
The key to helping children discover their strengths and grow on a personal level is in building a relationship with a role model, providing support and initiating new experiences, he said.
While Shelton is quick to forgive, he expects people to strive for better. Few things seem to bother him more than wasted ability. For that reason, he said he tries to do whatever he can to help people build their lives, particularly his former students.
“There are so many people (who) have so much to offer,” Shelton said. “But for some reason they don’t share it with anybody. I call them selfish, I don’t know what it is. I see so much talent with so many people and they don’t do nothing with it.”
From gangs to ‘Gents’
“They were wreaking havoc on the community,” Shelton said of the street gang, the “Barracudas.”
Many of his students at E.E. Butler High School were involved in the gang.
In the late 1960s, one of the students in Shelton’s chemistry class had grown tired of watching his friends get into gang fights and trouble. He proposed Shelton form an after-school club for the boys. The school already had a boys club called “The Esquires” but those students were generally well regarded for their “dressing and academics.”
“He came to me and said ‘We would like for you to be the adviser for our group,’” Shelton said. “I said ‘OK, bring me the names and let’s see what happens.’”
A little while later, the boy brought a very specific list of potential members to Shelton after class.
“I never will forget it. He brought me these 13 names,” Shelton said, pretending to hold the list in front of his face. “I looked at that list and I said ‘Oh my goodness. What is this?’ Because I knew all of them had problems, all of them. They were bad. They were bad kids.”
Shelton took the list to the school’s principal, the late Ulysses Byas, and asked for his opinion.
“He looked at the list and said ‘Professor, don’t fool with them boys. I’m having problems with them. The law is having problems with them. They ain’t going to do nothing but cause you problems. No. Leave those boys alone,’” Shelton said. “Well, me being the personality that I am, I went over his head and formed the group.”
Shelton said the focus of “The Gents,” as the group came to be called, was to give the boys an opportunity to get involved and gain experience in different things so they could use what they’d learned later in life.
In less than three months, Shelton said the boys behavior changed. They began to expect better behavior from one another.
A highly popular teen beauty pageant for girls was also started through the club.
When Gainesville City Schools desegregated in 1970, Shelton went to work at Gainesville High School for a year and later moved to Gainesville Middle School. But he continued meeting with the members of The Gents Club.
The group lasted for more than 25 years, with many of the boys becoming businessmen, lawyers and ministers.
The Rev. Earnest Mason of Gainesville is a veteran and working to earn a master’s degree in addiction counseling.
Mason joined the club when he was 13 and said Shelton has been “more than a friend, he’s been a Godsend.” He said Shelton’s attention got the boys to channel their energy into something positive instead of destructive.
“He called it The Gents Club because he wanted them to be gentlemen, to go out and do things for people,” Mason said.
Eventually, the club overcame the negative reputation from its gang days and became a well-regarded organization of the community. The boys often provided help to senior citizens and people in need.
“Today we’ve got a lot of professional people because Shelton inspired us to do things on a professional level,” Mason said. “He wanted us to be professional. He wanted us to set a better image for a lot of the African-American men. We had mothers but a lot of us didn’t grow up with fathers. He filled that void for a lot of us. He pushed us to do more. He wasn’t satisfied with us just doing more. He wanted us to excel. Some of those dreams and aspirations he instilled in us our kids went on to fulfil. That came about because of his influence.”
Mason said now that he has grandchildren he’ll continue sharing the lessons he learned from being a Gent and the cycle will continue through the generations.
Shelton tried to keep tabs on his Gents and their successes. His facial expressions reveal the pride he feels when he talks about their accomplishments.
“It’s just an awesome experience that I’ve had,” Shelton said. “Seemingly, I’d say, maybe this is my calling. Maybe this is what I’m here for. Because I do it and I do what I enjoy.”
While Shelton said working with children has always been his passion, he admits he did get a little “burned out” after working at the middle school for a few years in the 1970s.
Shelton left the school system for eight years to work as a personnel manager with ConAgra Foods .
“Now you’re talking about burned out. I got burned out,” Shelton said, laughing. “I got to a place where I just didn’t want to go in to work.”
In 1982, Shelton returned to the system as a truant officer and later became a social worker.
Shelton brought his experience with The Gents to the middle school and began offering students what he simply called “group.”
In group, students were encouraged to talk about anything they wanted to and to support one another.
“Sometimes kids would come in and talk about things that make them break down and cry,” Shelton said. “But they can do that because they’ve got that support group. The group itself was a support. The key was in knowing there was someone else who understood where they were coming from. As a result of all of that, a lot of those kids’ behavior changed, their grades went up and they became more aware of themselves and their development. It was a very powerful experience.”
Today, the group program is a part of Success Academy, a program that works with at-risk students.
Gainesville Middle School Principal Ken Martin said the program has been extremely successful and is marked by students’ higher grades and fewer behavioral issues.
Martin said Shelton continues to work with a lot of the children at the school, particularly at-risk boys.
“He talks with them about being young men,” Martin said. “He encourages them to do, not only what they need to do in the classroom, but to do the right things outside of the classroom. He’s an amazing role model.
“The one thing I’ve learned about him through the years is not only is he a genuine, sincere, caring individual, but he’s the same today and tomorrow. I’ve never seen him get upset. He’s always very positive and encouraging and he’s great for everybody to experience.”