Jeff Hammer: Our Decisions Reveal Our Priorities

Admittedly, I was not a stellar student at Lander Valley High School when I graduated from that institution almost forty-six years ago, and the onus for that lack of performance rests solely on my shoulders. My brother, Bob, who graduated a year ahead of me, on the other hand, was an outstanding student. He earned the title of co-salutatorian for the Class of 1975 (there were a lot of remarkable students in that class), and I remember the faces of my parents, beaming with pride from the stands at the LVHS Fieldhouse as he recited his salutatorian address that evening. 

He went on to the University of Wyoming, the first of my siblings to attend college. Never missing a beat and focused on academics as always, he graduated from that institution in four and a half years with a degree in Electrical Engineering.

As legendary NBA coach Jeff Van Grundy was famously quoted: “Your decisions reveal your priorities.”

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At some point during my sophomore year of high school, being an outstanding student ceased being a priority for me. Money, in our house, did not grow on trees or anywhere else for the matter; and I knew if I wanted a little cash for the normal things a teenage boy had on his mind back in the mid 1970’s, things like a car and the gas with which burn going up and down Main Street, I’d have to get a part-time job.

So in the summer after my sophomore year, I began working 48 hours a week at Don Cox’s Lander Standard, where X-Pert Auto is today, and when school started in the fall, I continued working there nights and weekends to the tune of 40 hours a week for the next two years, which didn’t leave much time for homework or anything else related to high school. 

My decisions revealed my priorities. 

I liked the money, but when graduation came and went (no salutatorian address for me, in fact, I’m still not sure how I earned the necessary credits to graduate), I had to make a decision; and the natural inclination, consistent with my lifelong practice, was to follow in the footsteps of my older brother. So, I enrolled at the University of Wyoming.

A guidance counselor at the LVHS, who obviously was paying attention to my life more than I gave him credit for, tried to talk me out of that choice. Instead, he encouraged me to go to Central Wyoming College; and then he proceeded to list all of the advantages of doing so, from living at home to being able to work part time to saving money. But I was having none of it. If my brother could do something, so could I.

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I should have listened to him and taken his advice.

The next year, as a college freshman, I learned a valuable lesson in preparedness, as I was not in fact prepared, and my grades showed it. While my brother continued to keep his nose to the academic grindstone, he earned his degree and then was hired at a well known corporation near Phoenix, Arizona for an impressive salary. I instead dropped out and entered the job market, which kind of began a cycle of working and going back to the University to earn a degree, which I really had no interest in and then going back to work again, all of which got me nowhere.

And then I happened to meet a young lady who was new to town and worked as a special education teacher at West Elementary. Driven and focused on her profession, I’m really not sure what she saw in me, but here we are, thirty-eight years later, still together and still supporting each other’s decisions.

What I saw in her, however, was a desire to help and improve the lives of children. It was that purpose and conviction that impressed me, so much so that I began thinking of a career in education as well. With her encouragement and support, I made the decision to earn an Elementary Education degree and pursue that profession, but with a young child and a limited income, the only way that was going to happen was if I could complete most of the remaining academic requirements while living in Lander. 

Luckily, nearly all the methods classes I needed were available locally through an outreach program sponsored by the University of Wyoming, but taught by local instructors. There were other requirements that the university did not offer locally, but were fortunately available through Central Wyoming College. With a combination of attending both of those institutions locally, I did not have to travel to Laramie until the summer before my final year, and then for only a few weeks. I completed my student teaching obligations at South Elementary, and after completing a correspondence class, I was done. 

After having finished my initial teacher training, I could say that the vast majority of those educational experiences were overwhelmingly positive. I took classes in Lander, Riverton, and summer classes in Laramie and correspondence classes (this was before the advent of online classes), and nearly all were valuable uses of my time. But I can say, without a doubt, my most gratifying and useful experiences were with Central Wyoming College.

On the UW campus, consistent with my previous experience, university professors seemed a bit distant and unapproachable, mainly I think because they were responsible for more students. Even university students, most of whom were all younger than me, demonstrated the cliquishness for which high school students are famous. While in Laramie for those few summer weeks, I kept pretty much to myself.

Conversely, all of my CWC instructors were friendly and engaged in the learning of their students. No matter the proficiency level of my classmates and me, our instructors’ main goal, it seemed, was to help each student advance toward whatever goal he or she wanted to achieve. 

Granted, most of the classes I took from our local community college were prerequisites for my teaching classes; however, the knowledge gained from those classes were particularly useful when I actually began my teaching career, especially a literature class taught by a woman who was amazing. It was because of her use of nonfiction books and her insistence on her students becoming critics of contemporary authors and becoming proficient writers that I am able to write these columns today. In addition, I can also give her credit for all the papers I wrote while earning my master’s degree and any writing assignments required of me for all the continuing education classes I completed over more than three decades of teaching. Her patience and encouragement among students of varying abilities provided an outstanding example for me when I entered my first elementary classroom as an instructor in Winnemucca, Nevada in the mid 1990’s.

Her decisions revealed her priorities.

I hardly ever forget a face, but as my former students will attest, I am terrible with names, and thus I cannot remember hers, which is a shame because I would like to publicly thank her for providing me with the tools to be a successful oral and written communicator and for demonstrating what proficient teaching looks like.

I also took an introductory art class at CWC from an older male instructor which I enjoyed tremendously. Although I will never be accused of being an artist, that gentleman opened my eyes and my mind to why folks with artistic abilities should not be pigeon holed into a career pathway that doesn’t fit their personality and inclination. 

I guess it’s not surprising that I can remember specific days and events which occurred in my CWC classes but my recollection of my classes in Laramie are mostly vague.

Over the more than 25 years I spent teaching in various Fremont County classrooms, I have taken many worthy continuing education classes through CWC. The latest being a multi-months science and math class sponsored by the University of Wyoming, but directed by instructors from CWC and Teton Science School. The experience was obviously not a one-and-done affair, but a complete immersion in understanding local river ecology through exploration in math and science, which necessarily involved my students from Lander Middle School. 

And it appears CWC is still my go-to institution for all things informational. During the first week of April, I attended a CWC sponsored hour and a half session during which representatives from Wyoming Senior Citizens, Incorporated provided information for those of us gray hairs who are headed toward Medicare. 

Talk about coming full circle.

So when I ask former students who are about to graduate high school about their future plans, and they tell me they plan to attend Central Wyoming College or one of the other fine community colleges in the state; I know that, chances are, they have made the right choice.

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