My first semester was over and now I needed a summer job. I had worked on the Mendocino County road crew out of the Laytonville Yard the past two seasons as part of the C.E.T.A crew that built the two mile path along Branscomb Road in ’75, then hired back as a grunt in ’76, mostly digging out culverts, cutting back brush, and flagging, the most boring job there is. But when I heard the County was hiring out of the Ukiah Yard, I forgot all that and went for an interview.
Turned out they had already hired a crew but still needed a crew leader. My two years in Laytonville was enough to convince the yard boss that I was the man for the job, and was told to start the following Monday.
I had a motley crew of five: A young Jewish woman who always had her favorite designer gloves; an aging hippie chick who argued that her tie-dyed shirts were more visible and therefore safer on the road than the red vests they issued; a local Pomo Indian who I don’t remember saying much; a typical white guy like me who wanted permanent work, and within a year or two I saw flagging for Cal Trans; and an Afro-American who had come to Redwood Valley from Indiana in the 60s with the Jim Jones Peoples’ Temple cult, but defected when they moved to San Francisco the year before. It was the next year on November 18, 1978 that 918 people at Jonestown, Guyana died from drinking the cyanide-laced Kool Aid.
One thing I learned on that job was if I wanted to get any work done, I couldn’t just tell them what do, lean on a shovel and watch them work, I had to work too, which I really didn’t mind. We actually had a good time and I was sorry that I would have to quit early, which meant no unemployment income all winter, and the way I did it, with a phone call to a message machine after my last day, no more county jobs for me!
I was to start my student teaching at El Molino High School in Forestville, a little town west of Santa Rosa, when the semester started the week after Labor Day, and I still didn’t have a place to stay down there, but that turned out to be serendipitous. I went to a neighbor’s party and met an attractive single mother named Janyce—yes, she spelled her name with a y—who told me she lived in Cotati, which was just west of Rohnert Park, where Sonoma State was located. I told her I needed a place to stay from Sunday night to Friday morning and she offered me her bedroom for $50 a month, saying nonchalantly, “I’ll just sleep with my daughter those nights.” Problem solved.
As the summer wore on, Yvonne really started to bulge, and I hated to leave her behind in her last month of pregnancy, but she supported me, no doubt wanting me to get my degree and a real job even more than I did. She had everything worked out so she wouldn’t have to deliver the baby in the local hospital. We had taken birthing classes together, her belly dancing partner, Jeannie, offered her living room floor, and Maria, a self-proclaimed mid-wife, would be ready to do whatever a mid-wife is suppose to do, while local artist, Linda, would shoot a home movie. What could possibly go wrong?
Knowing I would have no income starting in September, I had gotten together with local Willits middle school PE teacher Tom Tilton to take a wrestling officials course, which required us to spend a few Saturdays in Santa Rosa. TiIton was probably the best thing that ever happened to the troubled Baechtel Grove Middle School, where I taught 6th grade for the ’83-84 school year. And the community agreed, renaming the Baechtel Grove Middle School’s community-used gym the Tom Tilton Gymnasium, upon his recent retirement after nearly 40 years at that one school.
I was mostly assigned to officiate middle school dual meets in the Santa Rosa area, but my first high school meet was to be in Willits just before Christmas break. I admit I was a little nervous to referee in Willits for the first time, but had mucho respect for coach George Davis, for many reasons, the main one was that I was there and about to graduate with a teaching credential largely because of his encouragement. Also because I liked the way he seemed to think outside the box.
Everything was going fine until I stopped a middle weight match because the Willits wrestler’s nose started bleeding a little too much while trying to pin his opponent. The blood was running onto the wrestler’s face, neck, and uniform. I blew my whistle, gave the Willits wrestler 3 points for a near-pin, but George exploded, coming on to the mat yelling that I should not have stopped it because neither wrestler was in physical danger, as if bleeding profusely from the nose is okay. I couldn’t believe he was doing this to me, I mean, his team was ahead, as was his wrestler. What was his point? Was this one of his lessons? Was he testing me?
I was suddenly glad that Bob Colvig, a recent grad from Chico State and a Willits High alumnus, had just been hired to teach business, and was George’s new assistant wrestling coach. I’m pretty sure he encouraged Bob also to come back to Willits and be his assistant coach, and that I was more or less plan B. Which was okay with me, as I had started running and had already stopped working out with his team. I soon quit refereeing, and eventually coached Willits High cross-country and track.
The Start of Student Teaching
I was assigned to teach three English classes for the entire semester, one of which was Reading, taught by Ron Elder who also happened to be the wrestling coach, and a successful one. We made a deal that if I helped coach his team after school two days a week I wouldn’t have to teach his 9th grade Reading class, but could just sit in the back and observe them read. We didn’t really make that deal, but that’s the way it turned out, except for Friday’s when he let me give the spelling tests.
My second class each day was Composition, with master teacher Mike Miller, who stressed grammar, structure, and classroom discipline. And--surprise!!--he was also the football coach. Early on he told me I seemed to be “floating, pulling ideas out of the air,” and instructed me to have my “assignment decided on beforehand, don’t make it up during class.”
I wanted to teach them how to write a clearly understood paragraph, and they even agreed that it would be nice to write something that could be read and understood. I never liked grammar and assumed they didn’t like it either.
Then I was absent for a few days during Riley’s coming out party, and Miller asked them for suggestions on how to improve the class. I was surprised at some of them, such as: 1) more grammar; 2) more assignments; 3) more grades. I couldn’t help but wonder if they would have given the same suggestions if I had asked them. So I gave them my own questionnaire: What do you like most and what do you like least about this class?
Three of the answers I received for both questions were: grammar, writing, and nothing. The class was split, some wanted more grammar because they didn’t want to write, and others liked writing and hated grammar. I had played down grades, but since they wanted them I devised a point system and kept close track of their points. Then when I gave them an assignment the most often asked question was, “How many points do we get?”
Jan Stevens was my master teacher, but I jokingly called her my mistress teacher, in my third class, American Literature. She was nice enough to have another desk brought in just for me, and made me feel free to come and go anytime. She always listened to me and always had something positive to say. She never failed to make me feel like I belonged, that I had a lot to offer these kids.
One of the real eye-openers was when I had the class videotaped. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but showing it back to the students, asking for comments, and the honesty in the ensuing discussion was more like a therapy session. From then on they never hesitated to tell me when it got boring.
Sometimes A Question Deserves Only One Answer
Janyce was really nice, and made my stay at her two-bedroom apartment make me feel more like a guest than a part-time tenant. One night after her six-year-old daughter fell asleep, we were sitting around having a glass of wine and I was telling her about the tai chi classes I had taken. She was interested in learning the basics, so I told her to do what I was doing. I stood up and got in a relaxed position to “find my center,” then slowly started moving to show her some of the “form.” Then I walked over to help her, while telling her to breathe in through her nose and out through pursed lips. I instructed her to tuck her pelvis and chin, and raise her chest, while lightly touching these areas.
If this had been a date I felt like we would soon be all over each other, so I decided it was time to say good night, and went to bed. About twenty minutes later the door opened and she softly wondered if I wanted to “snuggle.” Sometimes in life a question deserves only one answer. She slipped between the sheets, and when we finished snuggling she crept back to her daughter’s room. I laid there feeling really good, and maybe a little bit guilty. I fell asleep until the phone rang about an hour later. It was Yvonne telling me her water broke and she was already at Jeannie’s starting to go into labor.
I hit the road, and by early morning on September 30 I was sitting on Jeannie’s floor, leaning against her couch, Yvonne’s back against me and her legs spread wide, grunting and pushing until the baby’s head crowned and slowly emerged, then plop, out came this little penis person we named Riley James Gibbons. That just happened to be 37 years ago last night...or as I rewrite this, the night before last.
As for Linda’s home birthing movie, we used to show it every year at Riley’s birthday parties so all his friends could see where babies really come from. I’m kidding! I never saw it or wanted to see it…until now, as I write this I suddenly have an interest in seeing it, yet something tells me my interest will soon wane.
Missing classes for a few days was no big deal, but my next adventure very well could have been a big deal if it weren’t for some nice person who I never got to thank. The mid-term was over and I placed all the completed tests and make-up homework into a folder with my grade book. I had taken 4-year-old Eli with me that week because it was minimum-day week, and I wanted to spend more time with him, plus give Yvonne a break.
On Friday I picked him up from the nearby day care center before heading back to Willits, but what I didn’t realize until I got home was that my folder was missing. My grade book with all the mid-term exams, make-up homework, and everything…gone! And I had no back-up. Suddenly I was in deep feces. I mentally retraced my steps after leaving school, and realized I had placed the folder on the roof of the car to strap Eli into his car seat, then drove off.
To top it off, the next week I was to be evaluated by my Sonoma State educational supervisor, Dr. Elliot. My future in education didn’t look too promising. Then I got a phone call from the Cotati Police Department, telling me that someone brought in a folder they found a few miles east of Forestville with my name on it. I was saved by someone I never got to thank, but in case you’re reading this, thanks.
The day of my evaluation, instead of doing the standard teaching thing, I told the story of my lost folder, and stretched it out a bit as the students seemed to be really interested for a change. Dr. Elliot seemed impressed enough to give me a very positive evaluation and told me I was doing just fine.
Everything went smoothly from then on, and in the last week a student asked me if I was going to be back next semester. I told her no, I’d be heading back to Willits. Another student asked if I would stay if they offered me a job. I said, yes, I probably would. They buzzed together and said they would start a “petition” to get me hired, which embarrassed me and I quickly discouraged them. When I told this story to a fellow student teacher, she said, “You should have let them do it. It would look great on your resume.”