17 October 2016

My Time at Willard Middle School Recalled on the Occasion of its 100th Birthday

Willlard's 1917 Graduating Class.


Yesterday I attended the 100th anniversary celebration for Willard Middle School in Berkeley where I labored happily for over two decades. At the event I was interviewed for an oral history project and the last question was about what moment I’ll never forget from my time at the school. Moment. One. There are hundreds, maybe thousands. But most of them cannot be seen in isolation as a single event. I mentioned, for example, my long friendship with a co-worker, an extraordinary person who was technically a school safety officer but in reality was so much more to the students and staff of the school. He was born Richard Brown but was always known as Grizz and he officially became Saad Muhammad after becoming a Muslim. I have yet to recover from his premature death in 2002. I worked with many extraordinary people at Willard, Grizz just happens to top the list.

I mentioned coaching three championship soccer teams two of which went unbeaten (one was also untied) but I could have included every team I coached and all the softball teams I coached as well. They were all special.  "Play hard, have fun," was my motto. I still miss coaching and the opportunity to build a team with common goals that worked as a single unit.

I mentioned memorable students like Andy Samberg who I would never have forgotten even if he hadn’t go on to have his own TV show and to appear in films. I could have mentioned dozens, many dozens, of other students like Sofia who I always remember whenever I watch the Simpsons and see Lisa Simpson. Sofia as a young teen was just like Lisa: smarter than adults, more knowledgable, involved in everything and yet possessed of a seemingly innate understanding of everything in pop culture. There were other classroom stars, at least one who is now a lawyer, two doctors, a professor, two engineers and I'm just getting started with the ones I know of.

There were a lot of other students who were not shining stars in the classroom. A lot of them who struggled and came from difficult home lives. But they showed up at school and despite not being intellectually blessed, worked their asses off and got passing grades and did even better in high school and beyond. Teachers love the kids who struggle but persevere. There were also students who I remember for their problems with behavioral issues. These kids were often royal pains in the ass and some of them remained so and never changed and today are in prison, dead or heading toward one of these fates. But a lot of them were just being 13 year olds and couldn’t sit still or shut up or follow directions or they were constitutionally defiant, rude and mischievous. But many of those young men and women grew up fast in high school and it was (and still is) always a delight to see them as mature young people succeeding in life.

There were funny moments, scary moments, moments that pushed every possible button, countless frustrating moments and challenging moments and aha moments when someone or several people or even a whole class finally understood. It was the agony and ecstasy and thankfully there was a lot more of the latter.

There were moments of inspiration and desperation, calculation and stupefaction. There were insights and fist fights. There was never ever boredom (outside, of course, some of our staff or department meetings). There were colleagues. Many of whom were great educators who served as daily reminders to others such as myself to show up everyday and give the students the 100% effort they deserved. Colleagues shared and lent a helping hand and offered a shoulder to cry on and cajoled and argued and contradicted and laughed like hell. God we had a lot of laughs. They were needed. Teaching middle school kids -- pressures from parents and administrators notwithstanding -- could be, and usually was, mentally and emotionally taxing. Fortunately the staff at Willard knew how to party and they knew how to keep one another loose and they sure as hell knew how to have a good chuckle. It was a brotherhood and sisterhood. I can only guess how many fellow teachers I worked with (over 100) and there’s only one — thus less than one percent — who I think ill of (and brother, she deserves it).

The support staff was part of the family and was never looked on as anything other than our equals. Never mind their possible lack of education or the menial nature of their duties. They were fellow travelers. Administrators were another matter. They were vested with a lot of power and a few used it badly (one in particular) but no one ever doubted that their intentions were good.

I was always enormously proud to be part of the Willard staff. As today I’m proud to have served the school. I went through some rocky times for much of my tenure. I was coping with the ongoing and rare condition of acute panic disorder with consequent anxiety and occasional depression and worst of all with the side effects from various medications that were tried. The side effects of caused all manner of problems including some bad moments, a few of which make me wince to this day. I never used my condition as excuse. Nor in fact ever mentioned. It was a difficult enough situation for me to understand without sharing it with co-workers.  By my last two years the proper meds, sans side effects, were finally keeping me stable but that’s precisely when my beloved and seemingly indestructible father began to die followed immediately by my mother-in-law's passing.

I put everything I had into teaching because anything less would be a disservice to the students and my colleagues. But it came time for me to go in late Summer 2008. When I finally resigned it was like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. The relief was one of the greatest feelings of my life and the eight years since have been the happiest of my life. As much as I loved working at Willard it had begin eating away at me. I needed to leave.  I have a new teaching career now in the relatively tame world of ESL where I get to teach students from all over the world. After 20 years of middle school, teaching intelligent, motivated and unfailingly polite young adults is a breeze and I like a good breeze.

I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like at Willard if…but it was like that and yet I contributed to making Willard the special school it was and am happy for my time there and the richness and meaning it has contributed to my life. Leaving there earlier than I'd planned was far outweighed by having been there in the first place.

Seeing colleagues from my days at Willard yesterday warmed my heart. It brought back many moments. More than that it brought back our shared experiences and the joy and dedication we gave to our school and its students. I was part of that. I was a public school teacher. I helped make a difference. I worked at an extraordinary school. That’s a goddamned good feeling, let me tell ya.

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