There are some people who view their work as a minor addition to help improve their community, but in reality their actions make major contributions to what makes Calaveras County a worthy place to live.
Jennifer Truman, an American history teacher at Bret Harte High School, is one such person. Earlier this month, she found out that she had been awarded the title of Veterans of Foreign Wars Teacher of the Year for the state of California, beating out 330 other applicants across the state.
Truman, who was nominated by Copperopolis-based VFW Post 12118, has been going above and beyond the basic curriculum requirements for her U.S. history and advance placement U.S. history students. Each year for the past 16 years, Truman has invited Calaveras County American Legion and VFW members to present to her students, providing firsthand accounts of what it was like to be involved in some of the country’s major conflicts.
“I’m really humbled,” said Truman on a recent afternoon from her classroom. “I really can’t say it any other way.”
In her first year of working at Bret Harte in 1996, Truman – who had previously worked for Summerville and Sonora school districts in Tuolumne County – “just happened” to be in the school office when interviews for the annual Boys/Girls State event were being held. There, she ran into Andy Ballentyne, a member of American Legion Post 102 in Valley Springs.
“We started talking and he told me I should teach more about wars and I thought, ‘No, you should,’” said Truman. She invited Ballentyne and other Post 102 members to come and talk with her students and the program has continued every year since.
“It’s a very intimate experience,” she said. “I told them (veterans), ‘If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will – like Hollywood.’”
VFW Post 12118 Commander Al Gilbert described Truman as “our favorite teacher.”
“You kind of have one opinion of today’s youth and then when we went into this class, it’s hard to describe. The students were so attentive, they were well mannered, they asked the right questions. It just made a difference in us and that came from Jennifer,” he said.
Truman typically hosts the presentations during the first week of May. This, she said, gives students an entire year to build a basic foundational understanding of geography – so they know where veterans were deployed – and the chronology of conflicts.
The event has been held all over the school, most recently being held in the gym for the past few years. Small tables are set up according to the needs of the veterans and students are encouraged to “mill around” and visit different tables.
The number of speakers has increased each year, with 2012 seeing the largest amount of attending veterans, 15. The large number was due in part to the addition of Copperopolis VFW Post 12118 members joining in last minute.
“After the Copper VFW was founded, I approached them and asked if anyone would be willing to speak. There are always different speakers each year, people have passed away or aren’t able to make the trip over. They were apprehensive at first and asked if they could just observe.
“But, within 30 minutes most of them had already joined in, pulling things out of their wallets to share with the kids,” said Truman.
Post 12118 Commander Al Gilbert was evidently impressed with Truman’s work. The group let her know in October that they were nominating her for the Teacher of the Year award. After a whirlwind of assembling documents and photos in the final days approaching the deadline, Truman’s application was sent in.
“I didn’t really think much of it afterwards and then I saw this letter in my mailbox. Honestly I was expecting it to say thanks for applying but, I won,” she said.
Despite her new Teacher of the Year distinction, Truman still passes all credit on to the men and women who take the time to share their memories and experiences with the county’s youth.
“Really, recognition should go to these veterans. I just provide a lot of coffee, set up the tables and chairs but from there on out it’s the veterans and it’s the kids,” she said.
Truman is now competing for the national title against 57 other contenders – 49 other state winners and eight territories.
“Our odds are getting better,” joked Gilbert. “We’re (Post 12118) hoping that they see just what she’s done and what she’s continuing to do.”