In the public schools of Redlands, California, I had a number of truly outstanding teachers. I think they would have been seen as such in any setting, but of course I can't compare. Mathilda Phillips, in English; Jack Nagasaki, in chemistry; William Cunningham, in physics; Gertrude Baccus, in speech and debate -- and that's just a few from high school. (Update: How could I have forgotten Lois Gregory, in French?) This was back during what seems in retrospect California's golden age, the time of big ideas, big ambitions, big possibilities, and of course big budgets, for the state's schools, parks, universities, and freeways. Now....
One of the most memorable was Raymond Haight, the history and social-studies teacher who was really my first contact with the world of politics and public affairs. I was sitting in his 10th-grade world history class when news came of John F. Kennedy's assassination; he talked about what that would mean, in ways that stood up very well over the years -- including what might become of the early commitments Kennedy had made in Laos and Vietnam. I learned long afterwards that "Mr. Haight" -- in his early 40s then -- represented a strain of California culture that was unusual in our very conservative small town in California's southern "Inland Empire." During the 1964 election, he raised questions about the locally-popular "Proposition 14," designed to overturn a "Fair Housing" act and, in effect, legalize racial discrimination in real estate sales and rentals. (Prop 14 passed but was then declared unconstitutional by the California supreme court. Too bad the disastrous Prop 13 never met the same fate.) Barry Goldwater was also locally very popular, and Mr. Haight had a few of us read Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative analytically (rather than as a holy text) and debate its strengths and weaknesses. The point is not that he was more liberal than the surrounding community, though that was so; rather, that he urged teenagers to think their way toward independent conclusions.
Most students at the high school had at best one generation of college attendance behind them. (Ie, many but not most of my classmates had a parent who had gone to college. Very few had college-grad grandparents.) Raymond Haight's great-grandfather, Henry Haight, had gone to Yale before the Civil War and became one of California's first governors. He signed the act creating the University of California and helped establish Golden Gate Park; the Haight district of San Francisco is named for their family. Soon after I went away to college, Mr. Haight and his family moved back to central and then northern California. He launched a quixotic campaign for governor in 1970, running as an anti-Vietnam War candidate. He came in well down the list for the Democratic nomination; the nominee, Jesse Unruh, went on to lose big to Ronald Reagan, running for reelection.
Because he'd moved away, I didn't see him on my visits to my home town, but I have often reflected on how much difference he made in my life. I learned just recently that he and his wife, the writer Mary Ellen Jordan Haight, had died this fall, within weeks of each other, at 88 and 82 respectively. I mention them to honor their memory, achievements, and influence; as testimony to what the public schools meant at that time; and as a counterpoint to the news this week of another round of teacher layoffs in my hometown's school system, as a result of California's budget disaster. His life made a difference. The picture below is from the high school yearbook, the Makio, when he was chosen "Teacher of the Year" in his late 30s, via the Redlands Daily Facts obit.