Guest Posts on County 10 are provided by contributors and the opinions, thoughts, and comments within are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of County 10.
In the fall of 1989, my wife, two-year-old daughter, and I moved to Winnemucca, Nevada where Gayla and I secured teaching contracts in first grade and fifth grade, respectively. I was entering my first year of teaching and Gayla had already taught for six years.
Winnemucca shared many community traits with my home town of Lander, so the switch was not totally alien. The two towns were then approximately the same population, and also being in the West, the residents of Winnemucca, by and large, were much like the folks I had grown up with and appreciated in Wyoming.
But there were minor differences that took a little getting used to. That northern Nevada town sat on both Interstate 80 and the Union Pacific Railroad, so that increased traffic made Winnemucca seem quite a bit more busy. We didn’t notice the difference too much as we lived about five miles south of town in an area known as Grass Valley and didn’t spend much time in town except for work and shopping, but when we were walking down Winnemucca Boulevard in town on a random weekend day, the increased noise was difficult to ignore.
This was long before the casinos on the Wind River Indian Reservation were in operation as we know them today, so legalized gambling was a new experience, but many of the best places to eat in the town were adjacent to the casinos. As I’m not a gambler, the casinos didn’t interest me, so walking by the casino to get to the restaurant wasn’t a problem.
In fact, I think very few Winnemucca residents frequented the casinos. Most of our socialization, when we lived there, came through interactions with our fellow educators, and I can’t recall a single one ever mentioning an episode where they won big at the casinos, unlike a few colleagues in Lander, who would casually slip into a conversation the fact that they won $1,000 on a recent Friday night at the Shoshone Rose. What I find interesting, though, is that I was never given the skinny on how much money they lost in order to win that $1,000.
Casinos stay in business for the simple fact that gamblers lose more than they win, and I’ve always been of the opinion that I worked too hard for my money just to throw it away at the black jack table.
Northern Nevada, at the time, was experiencing a growth spurt, known to us in Wyoming as an economic boom, because the price of gold was high, and the gold mines there were going full tilt. We, in Wyoming, know all about economic booms, but unfortunately we could also write the book about economic busts.
Not so in northern Nevada. The price of gold has remained fairly stable at a high level over the years, and the mines there are still operating thirty-four years later. That is stability.
And opportunity arises out of stability. During my time in Winnemucca, the demographic makeup of my fifth grade students featured a lot of variety, with migrants arriving from both within the United State and from Mexico. Both groups came seeking and successfully finding economic opportunity.
In my very first fifth grade class, among the twenty-five or so students with whom I was blessed, I had a boy and a girl who had moved over the summer from Wyoming and a boy from Louisiana. The Wyoming kids came from Midwest and Sundance, and both never gave me a lick of trouble. They were hard-working kids from hard-working families. The boy from Louisiana was cut from the same cloth, but he good naturedly corrected me on the first day of the school year, when I pronounced his home state as Lew/eez/i/ana.
“Mr. Hammer,” he said, “it’s pronounced Loo/zi/ana.” I’ve never forgotten.
Those students would be in their mid-forties now, and I’ve often wondered how they’ve fared over the years, as I’ve wondered about all my students from thirty-one years of teaching. For each one, I have only wanted a level of success for which they can find happiness and a long life.
I recently watched a short Y-tube video, where a high school teacher, somewhere in the U.S., was describing a student in his junior level math class. Throughout the year, the young man did not turn in a single assignment. His parents, although physically present, were not emotionally available for their son, so the teacher found no help there. Discussions with the student were fruitless. He never became a disruptive presence in the classroom, preferring to quietly draw during the whole period, but his completed artwork, unlike his school work, was amazing, professional in quality.
Finally, the teacher, in total frustration, sat the young man down and had a conversation with him that, in my opinion, could have led to the teacher being disciplined had an administrator found out about it.
“What are you doing here?” the teacher asked. “You haven’t turned in a single assignment all year, so you’re not going to pass. Maybe high school isn’t for you.”
To which the student replied, “You mean I don’t have to be here?”
“You’re seventeen. You can choose to drop out,” said the teacher.
“All I’ve ever wanted was to be a tattoo artist,” said the student.
Turns out, the young man dropped out of high school the next day.
Several months laters, the two met unexpectedly in a local business, where the former student informed the teacher that he had found a job in a tattoo parlor the day after he dropped out and had been working there since. The kid was happy and productive in an occupation that he loved. He wasn’t getting into trouble with the law and neither was he asking for public assistance.
That’s all I have always wanted for my students.
Maybe as educators, we can better serve our students by asking and providing them what they want, instead of us telling them what they need. Not every kid needs or wants to go to college.
During my last year of teaching in Winnemucca, a girl directly from Mexico was placed in my classroom. She spoke limited English, but she was improving by the day. During each day, opportunities would arise where I could good naturedly tease a student or two. As her English improved, she was the one student I could count on to dish it back to me in a like manner in a fun and appropriate way; and because of that, I will always remember her. I wonder where Arriana is now?
Looking back now, I am amazed at the tolerance shown among my students toward each other during the five years I taught there. We were the school of the haves and the have nots. In my classes were children of professionals and leaders of the business community sitting next to a child who had spent most of her life living in impoverished Mexico who may have had only two or three dresses to wear to school soon after she arrived, but they were dresses that were always clean.
And they all got along. I can’t recall a single instance when I had to deal with racial insults among my students. That experience tells me that the parents of my students were equally tolerant and taught their children to demonstrate respect for all human beings.
During my five years in Nevada, one of my most pleasant experiences was having three brothers in my classroom, during three separate years…the Cataldo boys. Sons of an Italian immigrant father and an American mother, they were some of the hardest working students I’ve ever enjoyed.
The dad hung and finished sheetrock, but wanted something different for his sons. He and his wife expected excellence in schoolwork and behavior toward their teachers and other students, just as they expected their sons to receive an excellent education.
Each day I am reminded of those boys and their parents. In our bedroom, on top of one of those little stands that can fit into a corner, sits a plant called a Christmas cactus. Small in stature, the plant nonetheless blooms each year during the Christmas season with small, delicate red flowers. Given to me approximately thirty years ago by Mrs. Cataldo when middle son Rocco was in my class, the plant has survived multiple moves, but still flourishes and is a reminder of my time in a school where every student and staff member was valued.
Yesterday evening, my wife and I walked from our home down to Main Street for what has become a yearly spectacle. The graduates of LVHS were paraded down the street in a variety of vehicles so that their achievements could be celebrated by them and by those of us who have appreciated their commitment to their future.
Although the parade lasted only a few minutes, I would not have missed the opportunity to share vicariously from the wall in front of where the old high school once stood, my high school, in their accomplishments.
These kids were my last students as a 6th grade math teacher at Lander Middle School.
May each one find their way to a long, productive, and happy life.