‘Teacher, You Have A Heart…”

by Jim Gibbons, April 18, 2012

My first day at Willits High School (1984-1985) was very interesting in a weird sort of way. I had no literature classes, just 8th, 9th and 10th grade basic English, meaning they were all at about a 6th grade level, and not college bound. What the heck, I just spent a year teaching 6th grade, how hard could this be?

The other surprise was that I didn’t have a homeroom. They didn’t have enough rooms in the old school building or even the boxes out back called “Portables,” so I had to tote everything from class to class, using different teachers’ classrooms while they were on their breaks.

The good news of not having a homeroom was that when other teachers and their students were in homeroom, listening to the daily announcements and saying the Pledge of Allegiance, I was free to have a cup of coffee in the cafeteria, or hang out in my little library cubicle that Diana, the sweet school librarian, let me use during my free time.

It happened in my 9th grade class after lunch. I was standing in front of the room, grade book in hand, waiting for the final bell (the first bell is the five minute warning). It rang and I started to introduce myself when a young girl came in, apologized for being late, walked up to me and stuck a little red heart on my shirt pocket. Yes, a bit odd, but she then sat down and raised her hand. I played along and said, “Yes?”

She said, in a sing-song voice, “Teacher, you have a heart on.”

I looked down on my shirt and responded, “I see that, and I thank you for giving it to me,” which caused the class to laugh and giggle, as “heart on” sounded a lot like “hard-on.” (Try it.)

In case you’re wondering what happened to the precocious young lady, she dropped out of school in mid-semester, and some years later was seen dragging two young ones down Main Street, followed by a homeless looking dude called Daddy by one of the youngsters. What does this teach us? Stay in school!

My fourth period class, just before lunch, was in George Davis’ classroom, one of the portables way out back by the track. Talk about basic, his class had no frills, nothing on the bulletin boards, no cutesy wall hangings or inspirational messages, just a blank blackboard (it was actually green), one piece of chalk, and one eraser. I mention this because one day I dismissed the class, gathered my stuff, and headed to my little nook in the library. I no sooner sat down when suddenly George Davis appeared with his hand out, and said, tersely, “Chalk?” I had absentmindedly put his only piece of chalk in my pocket. He had walked across campus, leaving his classroom waiting, while he retrieved his only piece of chalk. Lesson learned, I never walked off with his only piece of chalk again.

I should mention that besides teaching English, George Davis was the wrestling coach at the high school, but more than that he was a sort of local legend. He had taught and coached football at St. Helena years before where his teams went 5 years without a loss! From 1960-64 they amassed a record of 45 wins and no losses! And the kicker was — he let his players make the decisions of who would play what positions and which plays to call. His democratic coaching methods attracted a New York Times reporter named Neil Amdur, who ended up writing a book about George’s coaching methods called “The Fifth Down.” You can get it at the Mendocino County Library.

George moved to Willits to teach English and coach football, but his unusual coaching methods didn’t work here, and after a few losing seasons he retired from coaching football and turned to wrestling. He had a remarkable run coaching wrestling at Willits High, considering that he never wrestled himself and only learned the sport after he took over the team.

I should also mention that the reason I went back to school to get my teaching credential was because of George. Back in 1976 I wanted to get back in shape, so I used to drop in a few days a week and work out with his wrestling team. He liked my “manner” with the kids, and some of my moves that he hadn’t seen before. One in particular was the “whizzer,” that he renamed the “Wisconsin Carry,” after I mentioned that I wrestled and coached in Wisconsin back in the Sixties.

When I told him I was an English major, planning to teach and coach, but dropped out of college my last semester and moved to California, he encouraged me to go back to school and get my teaching credential, said he really needed an assistant coach, and that he’d do all he could to help me get a teaching job at the high school.

So I went to Sonoma State University for the Spring semester of ‘77 to find out I only needed a one-credit course in California History to graduate. But I also needed some education cIasses, and a full semester of student teaching to get my credential.

This story might sound better if I had returned to Willits a year later with my degree and credential, got hired to teach English and became his assistant coach, eventually taking over the team to lead them to a winning record for many years before finally retiring to live happily ever after.

Yes, that actually happened, but not to me.

I did, in fact, return in January, 1978 with my degree, only to discover that Bob Colvig (Willits class of ’66) had returned from Chico with his teaching degree, becoming George’s new assistant coach, and eventually lived out the above scenario.

But that was fine with me because I had started running while going to Sonoma State, and the running craze took hold. I kept putting in more mileage and within a year of serious training, ran my first marathon (Napa Valley) in the Spring of ’79 that qualified me to run the prestigious Boston Marathon, which I did in 1980.

I still remember my last work out with the team, shortly after returning in ’78. A likable kid named Pat Page, who I had wrestled with when he was a 120-pound Sophomore, again when he was a 140-pound Junior, and now he’s a 160-pound Senior, while I’m still at 130. After he over-powered me to get the takedown, he wrapped his arm around my waist and squeezed as I tried to escape… Crack! We both heard it, and afterward I told George that I was training for a marathon and didn’t need to get on the mat with these kids anymore. He understood, making me feel good about my decision, saying something like, “There are so many things we have to do every day, it doesn’t make any sense to do what we don’t want to do if we don’t have to do it…” Or something like that.

Meanwhile, back in ’84 at the high school I was miserable. After five years in the district teaching at the Continuation school, and the previous year at the middle school, I finally got to the high school and realized I was burned out. I wondered what I’d do for money if I actually quit. What some teachers do when they get burned out in the classroom is get a job as a counselor or administrator. The credentials were easy enough to get, a few weekends at some retreat in Sonoma, a mail order exam, and voila! they’ve rid themselves of those pesky kids. Over the years I knew more than a few teachers who became Vice Principals and Principals, making hell more money than they did in the classroom. But I’d had it, and knew I had to submit my resignation before the Christmas vacation so I wouldn’t be stuck till the end of the year.

On the last day of class before the two-week vacation I told Principal Chuck Davidson that I’d “lost my enthusiasm for the job.” He suggested I take a sabbatical, but that would mean finishing out the school year, which I didn’t want to do. So he told me to “put it in writing.” I went home and wrote the following:

“I am submitting this letter of resignation to go into effect January 18, 1985 (the last day of the current semester). My reason for this difficult decision is due to a recent lack of enthusiasm, and a worsening depression that, I believe, is directly related to the stress of teaching semi-literate, unmotivated, and too often disrespectful students….” You get the idea.

I missed my “retirement” party because I contracted a mean case of flu that knocked me down for a week! But I was a free man with nearly $7,000 owed to me by the teacher’s retirement system. Life looked good and when I recovered I went to Mexico with a few friends to celebrate.

Have I ever regretted my decision to quit teaching?

Not yet…

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