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John Nippolt
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          Why would anyone want to become a teacher?
          During my earlier years toiling as a framing carpenter, I noticed the different types of ornamentation on many of the homes I worked on.
          The demand for a wide variety of creative work ordered on a regular basis got me thinking. I knew I could design and fabricate most of the architectural embellishments that were needed. I figured out how much I would have to charge for certain pieces and compared my prices with the actual amounts paid. I was in the wrong business! I quit my regular job and became a self-employed small businessman. I had my own fine arts/woodcarving studio.
          Business was good for five or six years, but then I began to struggle. The faltering home construction business had a direct effect on me. I sold a few pieces of artwork and every so often a larger sculpting or carving commission would come my way, but those were too few and far between. To subsidize my dying business I began building houses again here and there but those opportunities were also scarce. It was time for me to get a “real” job.
          I needed to find something that offered medical coverage and retirement benefits. At first, I thought I was a highly qualified candidate for the workforce; I found out that my employment record would prove me wrong. I had minimal business expertise with no real management skills or training, plus, being older, made it obvious that landing a ‘good job’ was not going to be easy.
          After I ran out of jobs to apply for I was thinking that the possibility of gainful employment might be a lost cause, I had a bright idea. Maybe I should become a teacher. Hell, I liked kids and they seemed to get along fine with me; why not? Didn’t I work as a youth counselor in the Watts and Pico Aliso inner city areas for three years after I was discharged from the army?
          The two questions I had to ask myself were: Do I really want to teach and why? These are tough questions to answer. I heard many teachers quote the old saw, “If I can make a difference in just one child’s life...” Did I have such dedication? Was I only going to give and not get?
          Don’t get me wrong. When you have the ability to turn on the lights in a young person’s head there is hardly a clearer defining moment to explain why people teach. To start over again at age 50 I had to think through whether I could be good at it. I looked back at my outlandish behavior in high school and wondered how I might face somebody like me? It was a scary thought.
          No one from my high school days would believe or even venture a guess that I would consider becoming a teacher. I was the class clown, prankster, and village idiot rolled into one. I always pushed the envelope because I felt it was my official duty to push the teacher over the edge. I ditched school so many times I should’ve gotten an A for it.
          What would it really mean to me if I became a teacher? The answer to this question was determined by my basic need; teaching should enhance my life as an artist. I know this may sound like a selfish reason, but I need to succeed for myself first if kids under my guidance are to accomplish anything.
          With this in mind, I realized there were youngsters in schools who needed people like me to be in there with them. More than a few teachers have forgotten what it was like to be young. They no longer have a fresh view of the world, and are not equipped with an extra ration of empathy when the time and place call for it. I am now sure I can make a difference. My successes say as much.
          It is my job to help my students learn about learning. I tell them that it takes some guts and hard work to make a successful life. They can make a better place to live in, but unless they are willing to take real charge of their lives nothing will change. Still, there are those bad days when even I feel like the last thing I want to do is inspire kids.
          On one such occasion, a student entered my classroom late, sporting bags under her eyes. One of her boyfriends got up and left his seat to join her when she sat down. They made small talk and she pulled a half empty bottle of soda from her backpack. She gave it to the boy. Their body language told me something was not quite right. They each took a drink from the bottle finishing it off.
          Another bottle of soda appeared out of the girl’s jacket and the boy took a drink. He shook his head and then had one more sip. I watched quietly as the bottle of soda was made the center of conversation at the table. I walked to the table and picked up the near empty container. The look on the girl’s face told me she knew she was busted.
          “What do you have in here?” I asked.
          “It’s just some soda, Mister.”
          “And what have you mixed into the soda?” I smelled a definite odor of hard liquor.
          “Oh, I put some juice in it.”
          I’ll say there was juice in it. The standing rule is to call security immediately. I had to have the drunken girl and her friend escorted from my classroom down to the front office. I learned this was not her first alcohol related incident at our school. In fact this was her second offense in two weeks, so she would be suspended for the rest of the semester. She is 14 years old.
          This is only the tip of the iceberg. Groups of kids share bottles before they come to school, show up drunk in the classroom, and pretend they didn’t get enough sleep the night before. I am saddened to say that most of them get away with this ruse.
          It is no longer bad form for students to sleep in class, and many teachers allow it. They will leave the sleepers on the back burner until the time comes to grade them and then they fail them. Who cares? The kids seem not to.
          My rule of thumb is if I can’t sleep in class, they can’t sleep either, which leads to confrontations because I wake them. These problems are on the rise and I try to stay alert to the signals these addicted young people give off but you cannot always spot the loose cannon. There are clever youngsters in our public high schools and it’s a damn shame they won’t use that cleverness to enrich their lives. Not all the news is bad; there are some youngsters who have reformed. I received an e-mail from a student I had in my art class two years ago. He was doing well and went on to mention he finally finished a painting he had started in my class. He said he had given it to his sweetheart on their anniversary.
          I remember taking a class dare to arm wrestle him after he had defeated one of the young power houses of the school. The match gave us an opportunity to start up a relationship that would eventually lead to deeper discussions. His work caught my eye from drawing assignments completed in his journal. I could see from other entries in his sketchbook that he had some decent concepts and he continued to improve. I didn’t let him come and go in my class without paying attention to him. I began to discover who he was and it wasn’t long before we began to exchange confidences.
          One day he told me he was an alcoholic. He said he’d had to make his own way from early on. I learned he had lived alone in Guam, moved to Hawaii by himself when he was 16, and was living on his own while he was here. Although he was drinking, he managed to get into and through high school somehow, more than likely by lies and forgery. Oh, the power of art, even if it was of a second storey kind.
          Learning that he had become an alcoholic by age 18 moved me to really reach out to him. My idea of reaching out is more like relating to a young person by listening to his or her story without playing any adult cards. I know something about alcohol, having sat at the bar most of my adult life (until age 49). I liked drinking as a young person, and I knew the desperate years he would face if he didn’t have someone like me step in and talk with him about the reality he lived.
          He finished off his e-mail telling me about his job, his girlfriend, and that he was happy. He ended his note by thanking me for being an inspirational artist for him, and he closed with “still learning, thanks again, John”. He is up in the Pacific Northwest now, making his way, clean and sober.
          Why would anyone want to become a teacher? I get a new answer every day.