By Tom Kollenborn
How many of you remember a very special teacher in your school experience? Almost everyone has had that special teacher who reached out and helped you in such a way you thought you were special. This assistance helped you succeed in school, in life or both. Most of us have read about history and legends in my column, but for 32 years, I have been involved in education. I taught Jr. High School classes for 15 years. I would like to share some of these experiences with you. Many of them were involved with the mountains and land that I love so much.
When I walked into my first class room in August 1973 with my lesson plans, I was a pure idealist. I sincerely believed I could make a difference, change the world; and I planned on doing it. Still, to this day, I believe I have made a difference. As I looked at my students that day, for the first time, I had a little anxiety about what would happen. This was my first day of school, but it was their seventh year of experience with a teacher. They were experienced at being students; however I wasn’t experienced at being a teacher. To teach them was one thing; to gain their respect another.
The first time I saw my isolated classroom sitting at the north end of Davis Field on the Apache Junction High School campus near Southern Avenue, I felt like Robinson Crusoe on an abandoned island cast far away from society. I could look to the southeast, and all I could see was Creosote, Bur sage, an occasional Mesquite and a few Barrel cactus. I felt like I was in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Actually, I was! To the north of my classroom was also a desert.
My classroom, an old military barracks, had been salvaged from Williams Air Force Base. There were no communications between my classroom and the office. The walk from the office to my classroom required a minimum of five minutes, if you really hurried. I handled all of the emergencies in my classroom by myself. These emergencies ranged from accidents, irate parents and animal attacks to seizures. I experienced all of these emergencies in my first year at the “shop shack,” as the students affectionately called it. Please don’t let that bother you; the students called the snack wagon the “roach coach.”
A lot of parents called my shop class the “sweat shop,” and for good reason. We had no real cooling in the shop. I had a worn-out evaporative cooler that didn’t produce enough air to cool the shop. Students would stand in front of it to cool off. In desperation, I placed a beautiful scene of mountain glaciers and snowpack on the wall. This large photograph would hopefully psychologically ease the hot conditions of our classroom in those days. Of course, I was always worried the glaciers and snowpack would melt in the picture during those hot humid August days in our classroom.
The Jr. High School principal, Dale Hancock, had very little budget money for the shop, but made every effort to help me secure enough tools and supplies to teach my classes. Most of the tools and supplies were donations from the community. I was loaned a power plant to run the cooler until electricity was installed in the class room. Hancock wanted me to round up as much equipment and supplies from the community as I could. This became my first community relations job with the school district. I had lived in the community off and on since 1955, and I knew many wonderful people in Apache Junction who would contribute to the shop program.
I taught a class titled “World of Work.” It was a basic woodshop class for junior high school students. I taught basic shop safety. I had a list of objectives that I taught. These objectives included; how to use a tape measure, how to cut a piece of wood, how to how to square a piece of wood, how to sand and finish a piece of wood, how to properly drive a nail, how to read a simple set of plans and draw a simple set of plans. Teaching these objectives to a group of junior high students was certainly a challenge. However, I had a lot of interest and determination among my students that made my job easier and, by all means, more successful. My enthusiasm to teach and their determination to learn made a successful combination.
When I started teaching at the Jr. High School, there were only two clubs for the students. Mr. Jay Mitchell had a chess club, and Mr. Tom Johnson had a math club. A couple of my students expressed their interest in hiking. We soon formed a hiking club. The club provided me a great opportunity to get out into the mountains I loved so much, and at the same time, provide some recreation for my students on Saturdays. The Apache Junction Jr. High School Hiking Club was formed, and we hiked many of the trails of the Superstition Wilderness Area.
I found an enormous amount of support among the parents. I had all the sponsors I needed to hike with us. Our hiking club covered close to five hundred miles in the Superstition Wilderness Area in the first four years it was organized.
Yes, I was teaching on the Arizona frontier in the 1970’s, whether I wanted to believe it or not. Most mornings when I arrived at the shop early, I would watch the coyotes chasing the rabbits on Davis Field. Sometimes, there would be four or five coyotes chasing a dozen or so Jackrabbits. The coyotes chasing the rabbits reminded me of my high school days at Phoenix Union. What a metaphor! Our school was known as the Coyotes and Mesa was known as the Jackrabbits.
You must realize, this was the only patch of green grass east of the county line (Meridian Road). This grass attracted insects, rabbits, snakes and coyotes from out in the desert. There was nothing to the south of the school in those days. Almost all of the roads were dirt south of Main Street or the Apache Trail.
Each morning, it was quite entertaining watching the Coyotes versus the Jackrabbits in the open field. I never saw a coyote catch a rabbit. It was usually a tie between the two groups.
When the sun was above the horizon, it warmed up, and the rabbits and coyotes would retire for the day. The game was over, and I prepared to meet my first period shop class. Those wonderful days will be etched in my memory for the rest of my life. It certainly had been a long way from the back of an old Quarter Circle Ranch horse to a classroom at Apache Junction Jr. High School.