It’s that time of year again. It’s a time when students return to school – well, kind of. Much like everything else in the world, school has been changed because of COVID-19.
This isn’t a column about opening schools or keeping them closed. In times like this, there need to be adequate precautions taken to ensure the safety of students and teachers, and if distance is the short-term solution, so be it. But what this column is about is the importance of teachers and the impact they can, and do, have on the lives of students.
My father was a public high school teacher for over 30 years. He began his career in Los Angeles but spent the vast majority of his classroom time at Sonora High School. Even though my father was a teacher and I could see first-hand that he was a human, I didn’t think such of my own teachers. In my young mind, I thought teachers were like vampires, who only came out during school hours and then retreated into the darkness until they had to return the next day. If I ever saw a teacher of mine in public, I was always terrified and tried to hide until the danger was gone.
Maybe I was a little odd for thinking that way, but for the early part of my school life, I wasn’t always the No. 1 choice of teachers. When I was in second grade, I got exposed to a drug that I have yet to be able to be without. It got me and it got me good. I’m talking about laughter.
Second grade was the time I figured out that I had the ability to make my classmates laugh. And if my classmates were laughing, that means they weren’t being mean to me, and if they weren’t being mean to me, that means they liked me. The more laughter I got, the harder I tried to get it. And while I’m sure my classmates enjoyed my early attempts at humor, the same could not be said for my teachers.
It was often reported to my parents that I was disruptive. While that was true, it was never my intention to be disrespectful to my teachers, rather, I just wanted the laughter. For years I had issues in school because I chose trying to be the class clown over being a good student.
To be clear, I had good teachers growing up – with one exception – and I know that teacher did the best with me. But as a young student, I didn’t realize that and often felt as if I was disliked and overlooked by that teacher.
It wasn’t until I reached seventh grade that my outlook on not only teachers, but myself, changed. I was coming off of a rough sixth-grade year and honestly, there didn’t seem to be a lot of hope for me as a student. That’s when I met two of the three teachers who I feel helped put me on the right path.
In seventh grade, we had multiple teachers, and two of those teachers were Mr. Rundle and Mr. Haycock. This was a turning point for me, because it was the first time in my life that I had men as teachers. Mr. Rundle had been at Summerville Elementary School for, well, I’m pretty sure he was there during the Wilson administration, so he had heard every wisecrack, excuse and joke in the book. He was a no-nonsense teacher, but he also had the ability to talk to me as a young adult, rather than as a stupid kid.
Mr. Rundle liked football. He saw that I liked football, too, which became a common interest we could talk about. The more we would talk about football, the more comfortable I felt opening up to him and trusted him as not only a teacher, but as a person.
The other teacher that year was Mr. Haycock. He was an older gentleman but was in his first year as a teacher. He wore Hawaiian shirts, sounded like Drew Carey and had a big mustache. He was also a Giants and Notre Dame fan, which was right up my alley. Most of all, he enjoyed laughter. He was really the first teacher who embraced my personality and allowed me to make jokes when the time was right.
Mr. Haycock gave me some slack, but he also showed me where the line was, and because I didn’t want to let him down, I did my best not to cross it. It was a great feeling having someone not get mad at me for using humor and encouraged it rather than silenced it. Between Mr. Rundle and Mr. Haycock, that was the first time in my life that I truly felt encouragement from someone who wasn’t a family member. And because of that, I didn’t want to let them down.
The third teacher who helped me out was Mrs. Caldera, who I had in eighth grade. Remember, this was nearly 20 years ago, but at that time, Mrs. Caldera was the young, pretty teacher who all the young boys were secretly in love with. Being in that young adolescence stage of male development, the last thing I wanted to do was to upset the pretty teacher. But it didn’t matter how suave and debonair we tried to be, Mr. Caldera had already captured her heart, so any attempts to change that were futile.
Mrs. Caldera was also an excellent educator who was compassionate and very encouraging to me. But perhaps the best thing about her was that she loved to laugh, which again, fit me perfectly. Like the other two previously mentioned teachers, she allowed me to be myself, but tightened the screws when I became too much. It’s funny, I later covered her son and daughter in sports, which really made me feel old. But she’s as kind and genuine now as she was back then.
The reason why I’m telling you about these three teachers from my past is because without them, I might not be writing this today. They saw something in someone that wasn’t overly obvious. They listened, they cared, and they invested their time and energy into making me a better person. I had other teachers later in life who did the same, but these three were the first, and there is no amount of gratitude I could express for how they helped shape me.
I know there are many teachers who hate not being in the classroom with their students. And while I truly hope distance learning is only temporary, I just hope that there isn’t a student like me who won’t get the chance to be noticed because of the current situation. I can guarantee that if I did distance learning as a student, my life wouldn’t be the same. There’s only so much that can be accomplished on a computer screen and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that teachers can soon return to their classrooms and help change the lives of their students, much like what happened to me.