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In my career home stretch

Apr 22, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

My years of daily battles in the educational trenches are quickly coming to an end. In five short weeks I hit the magical rule of 85.

For those of you not familiar with it, the rule of 85 is the combination of age and experience you must reach as a public employee in order to qualify for retirement with full benefits.

Today will be the first of a six-part series of my life and times in the public education sphere, first as a student then finally as a 32-year veteran of the "system."

What makes someone want to become a teacher? Some people, like my wife Sue, knew it from from childhood. Others, like me, find themselves the victim or the victor (depending on your viewpoint) of a seemingly unrelated series of events that lead to the classroom.

Looking back at the battle axe I had for a first-grade teacher nearly half a century ago would seem to eliminate any chance of wanting to become a teacher.

But along the way many caring people changed that image.

I think often of my sixth-grade math teacher, Mr. Dimmer. At 12 I was an avid reader of science fiction and a space travel "junkie." I spent many days in front of our black-and-white television in the pre-dawn hours waiting for a Gemini launch, a midnight space walk or one of the early Apollo flights.

Mr. Dimmer worked at Mather Heights Elementary at Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif. As a young man he worked in the post-WWII era at White Sands, N.M., launching and recovering captured German V2 rockets, American-made Aerobees and other proto-type ballistic missiles. His stories of the dawn of the space age fascinated me. I could never get enough of them.

His classroom was unique. He had 36 students arranged in groups of six desks, two rows and three columns each in a circular pattern in his room. His desk was in the middle. He separated us by ability level and added a bit of competition to the mix by assigning a "first chair" for the top student in each group. First chair meant you could play chess instead of doing math on Fridays. If you beat everyone else, you had the chance to play Mr. Dimmer.

My competitive side came out for the first time. I played Mr. Dimmer nearly every Friday for the entire school year.

I think often about his approach, how he incorporated that dreaded word "competition" into the educational realm. It was a perfect approach for me, but it would be the subject of countless complaints today in our growingly soft educational world.

My ACT scores earned a Naval Academy nomination from Rep. Teno Roncalio six years later. During the physical at F.E. Warren AFB, it was discovered I was three-quarters of an inch too tall in a seated position to be a naval aviator.

My dream of flying off the Enterprise ended in that examination room, and I declined the subsequent appointment.

I think Mr. Dimmer's stories must have inspired the goal of military flight, along with my dad's career in the Air Force.

Jump ahead two more years, and I found the second great educator to cross my path in University of Wyoming Civil War history professor E.B. Long.

E.B. never graduated from college. A journalism major at Northwestern University in 1942, he quit school during his junior year and became a war correspondent.

He often joked that the rest of the faculty resented his not even having a B.A. but that his dozen honorary doctorates made up for it.

Brilliant, pointed and challenging, he made the Civil War come alive.

One day at breakfast, my friend Scott Hartwig, (a parks and recreation major) said I should come to his Civil War class that afternoon. After a bit of cajoling by Scott, I agreed to meet him at the old A&S building that afternoon.

As a sophomore in civil engineering. there wasn't much time for something "soft" like history, but I went with my friend.

E.B's lecture on the third day at Gettysburg was so moving that after class I found my adviser and switched my major to American history. Scott is now approaching retirement himself as a senior interpreter at Gettysburg National Military Park, another tribute to E.B's skill.

Two years and 70 credit hours later, a B.A. in American history looked like a dead end. Law school was a possibility, so I took accounting and business law to test the waters. I couldn't stand either class.

The option of becoming a teacher slowly rose to the forefront. The education classes I took were less than challenging and the concepts so bizarre that it was evident few, if any, of the education professors had ever stepped into a high school classroom.

Still, it was a way to make a living, and maybe I could coach a little football and track.

I spoke with E.B. about it, and he was in agreement. It was still a time when teachers could actually teach a subject besides test preparation and ruled their own curriculum.

Once again, I changed majors and declared secondary education, just in time to get a student teaching assignment.

Teachers affect their students in profound and often unexpected ways. I wish I had the chance to tell both men the effect they had on my future.

Maybe they realize it now, even though both have passed on long ago.

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