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News / Life / Clark County Life

Everybody Has a Story: Teacher learns valuable lesson

One kid got to him. He still has regrets.

By Steve Friebel, Salmon Creek
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:05am

In 1975, I was teaching at Vista Continuation High School in Bakersfield, Calif. Our students had been invited to leave or expelled from traditional high schools.

I thoroughly enjoyed the daily challenges and rewards of working with our students. I took great pride in thinking that due to my great skills, I was an education god of tremendous importance and a model to others. I decided that students who had me as their teacher were fortunate, indeed.

During my third year at Vista, one of my students taught me an unforgettable and significant lesson about myself as a teacher and as a person.

My colleagues at Vista were among the best educators I have ever known. Their considered assessment of me was: “That boy has got potential but right now he is arrogant and obnoxious.”

They were fearless and relentless in letting me know this, but I paid scant attention because after all, I was an education god and therefore a gift to children and my peers. I continued basking in my wonderfulness until a student I’ll call Yolanda entered my American government class.

Yolanda’s reputation preceded her. She may have been brilliant but she was a ruthless and relentless destroyer of teachers and classrooms. Yet, as an education god I knew that I would be impervious to her attempts to destroy me and my classroom.

Typically, Yolanda would miss a couple of days of school per week. She was always late to class. She would interrupt me as I spoke. She spent most of the period talking smack to her friends. She did little work.

I never considered sending her to the office or to our counselor because doing so would mean that she had won. But we would regularly step outside of the classroom, where I used all of my education god ideas and tricks to win her over. I thoroughly failed at all of these efforts.

One day after a particularly rough class period of emotional warfare with Yolanda, we stepped out for yet another conversation. It was time for a new tactic.

“You know what? We’ve been at this war for the last two months,” I said. “It’s time for a solution. You are doing little or no work. You are constantly talking smack with your friends and interfering with their learning. You interrupt me and totally disrespect me. As you clearly have no interest in learning anything in my class, why don’t you just drop out of school?”

I waited for a response and got nothing. We returned to class. The period ended and Yolanda walked away by herself.

Yolanda did not return to class. At last, teaching was good now. But after a couple of weeks of peace and no Yolanda, I asked one of her friends what had happened to Yolanda.

Her friend said icily, “Well, Mr. Friebel, you told her to just drop out of school and she did.”

“I win,” I said to myself.

How incredibly selfish, misguided, uncaring and unloving could I have been?

I continued to work with this particular population of students for 40 years. I helped establish an alternative high school in Everett and I eventually had the good fortune to become the principal of an alternative high school in Vancouver (Pan Terra, later renamed Lewis and Clark High School). I loved being the principal there. All of the members of my staff were loving, caring, intelligent, professional and patient with me. Our students were amazingly intelligent and gifted and taught me so very much about learning and life. They were also patient with me.

I spent the last two years of my career as a teacher at the Clark County Juvenile Jail, one of the best jobs I ever had. The staff were caring and loving. Although our students came from some of the saddest and most horrendous circumstances imaginable, they were also patient with me and taught me so very much about a side of life I never considered.

I still think about Yolanda. I wonder what happened to her. I wonder if she’s still alive. How could I have done such an inhumane, unloving, treasonous thing to a child?

I have spent decades getting my mind right. If I could talk to Yolanda now, I would apologize profusely. I would explain that I needed to learn this lesson. Disrespect, fear and threats don’t work on adults, so why would they work on children?

I have completely altered my approach (now as the occasional substitute principal) to working with difficult kids. Some kids are and will be rude, obnoxious, nasty and naughty. I no longer see their behavior as a personal attack on me. I take deep breaths and remember, this is a child who needs to be heard, respected, loved and cared for.

Still, I cannot erase my memory of Yolanda walking away from school. I will never forget this image, as it made me a better person and a more effective educator.

Yolanda, I ask for your forgiveness. I wish that I could have a do-over with you.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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