Atwater H.S.


I walked into the public school teacher recruiting office at the University of California one morning in early summer of 1959 eating an ice-cream cone and asked the woman at the desk if “any school district was hard up enough to hire someone with a provisional credential?”  She nodded and pointed to a man sitting at a table nearby.  He told me to finish my cone and come back.  I did so and soon was engaged in the employment interview for a 9th grade social studies in a new high school built in Atwater, California.  This was to be it’s first year that it was open for classes.  Atwater was a small town near the Castle Air Force Base north of Merced in the California central valley.  During the interview I was asked if I drank [alcohol] and I replied “yes.”  He responded “We would find it quite inappropriate if you were seen in the Mexican bars across the tracks.”  I was astonished and replied “Do I also have to teach Sunday School?”  No.  So I was hired.


On arriving in Atwater Mary Ann and I found no apartments to rent so we ultimately had to purchase a house.  That was quite impossible as we had no money for a down payment.  Then Mary Ann admitted that she had $5,000 in a bank in Carmel, California where she was employed as an R.N. before I married her.  So we bought a house for $12,000 and made it our home for the following year.


After all the school-wide activities I went to my home room and faced 28 new Freshmen.  I started my introduction and quickly noticed a group of Hispanic boys and girls in the rear rows that were not paying attention but rather chatting in Spanish among themselves.  My rostrum was three sided with the open space facing me.  I picked up a yard-stick and smacked it against the side of the rostrum shouting “Caiyate!” as loud as I could [shut up].  The startled Hispanic kids must have jumped two feet off their chairs in astonishment.  I then proceeded in Spanish saying we are going to be good friends but we have to have a chat after class.  Meanwhile be quiet so others can learn if they want to.”


And so began my first day at Atwater High School.  The Hispanics and I did become good friends but the agreement we had was that they could do anything they wanted to do in the rear of the room, sleep, read books, draw, etc. but they could NOT disturb class activities engaged in by the rest of the class.  I told them that they had every right to remain stupid and fail the class, that was their decision, but that they could not interfere with the other students right to get educated.  I offered to help them one-on-one or in small groups so they, too, could learn.  From then on we got along fairly well, most of the time.


Besides the Hispanic population there were other visible minorities in the community which included Mennonite and other fundamentalist church groups that were opposed to educating their youth beyond the state requirement to age 16.  To address this issue I began a series of meetings in our house for any faculty that wanted to participate and every second week I invited the pastor of a local church to come and explain to us the basic tenants of their faith and how that related to public education.  It was made clear that this was not an opportunity to prosletize but rather an opportunity to get to know each other better.  These meetings went very well until I invited the local Catholic priest.  He refused to visit our group and said that if we wanted to know anything about the Catholic Church we could attend catachsim classes held at the church.  He also happened to be one of the village alcoholics.  Oh, well, you can’t win them all.


As every member of the faculty was new to the school Mary Ann and I developed a social event to get to know each other better.  We created the Sunday Breakfast Club where we invited everyone over to our house each Sunday for pancakes or waffles of all sorts: sour dough, whole wheat, rye, buttermilk, etc.  I did the hotcakes, others prepared fresh fruit, others prepared the coffee or tea, etc.  We always had nine to 15 participants between 9:30 a.m. and noon.  It was a fun event and we quickly got to know each other.


Not too long into the school year the school district was holding an election for a school levy for faculty salary which happened to be fairly low in the state ranking.  One of the School Board was quoted as saying that “those who can do and those who can’t teach and raising their salaries was uncalled for!”  This may have been a minority opinion on the school board but I was pissed and wrote a letter to the editor of the local weekly stating that I would not teach in a community where such an attitude was held and would quit if the levy failed.  It failed so Mary Ann and I went to a place that actually invited us to become a member of their faculty, Pacific Grove, California.


Oh, by the way, the Principal who had hired me got fired when the school board found out that he had lied about his credentials, that he did not have a PhD as claimed.