Tuesday, April 23, 2013

for mr. denike and teachers/learners everywhere

Some of you knew Mr. Denike or had him as a teacher before he retired.  On his last day as a teacher he stopped by, handed me a book by George Carlin, and said, "Remember: f**k 'em if they can't take a joke."  Mr. Denike was one of those unique individuals who didn't think of teaching/coaching as a job or even a calling.  He simply WAS a learner/thinker/teacher-- in the best, most human sense of the words-- whether he was in a classroom, on the basketball court, or just hanging out over a cup of coffee.  I will miss him and my heart goes out to his family.  Here is a piece from one of his former students that appeared this week in the Santa Maria Times; even though Mr. Denike is no longer with us, the spirit of learning lives:

The true art and beauty of educating

  •  Gabriela Spears-Rico 

It has taken years of reflection to grasp the significance of the impact teachers like Greg DeNike had on my life. He impacted my intellectual growth as a writer, my self-esteem as a person, and the convictions that shaped me well into adulthood.

I was not the typical Advanced Placement student at Arroyo Grande High School. I came from a home broken by alcoholism and domestic violence. I was poor and ashamed of my poverty. I was an immigrant who struggled with learning English and understanding my place in American society. I felt isolated and undeserving as one of the only Mexicans in my AP classes.

I did not always receive support or validation of my dreams to go to college. In fact, another AP teacher actually denied me a letter of recommendation my senior year. Yet, even with my struggles over self-esteem and my feelings of isolation, Mr. DeNike's class was a haven where I could question issues without feeling exiled or silenced, and where I felt that my presence mattered.

These validations might seem insignificant to people who grow up hearing they matter on a daily basis, but they meant the world to a child who felt she had no voice.

I was coming to consciousness about issues of racialization and my identity as a person of color in the United States, and I often felt ridiculed for expressing differences of opinion in other classes. I struggled to find my voice, and did so in Mr. DeNike's class.

Mr. DeNike promoted diversity in a way that few teachers at AGHS did. In his class, I felt free to express my feelings of isolation from American society. 

Mr. DeNike welcomed my perspective. He felt that students like me had invaluable lessons to offer. On one occasion, I wrote a commentary to the school newspaper about stereotypical caricatures of Mexican American students in the ASB plays. My article caused much controversy and anger. I was mocked for writing the piece, and most teachers said nothing. Mr. DeNike actually used the controversy as a teaching moment in his class, praising the piece for its stylistic strength and asking my classmates to consider how my article spoke to certain issues. Mr. DeNike publicly praised me for the piece at a moment I felt ostracized by the school, validating my voice and my writing.

Now that I am in the process of writing a dissertation, I realize I still use many of the strategies and writing lessons Mr. DeNike taught me in AP English. To this day, I find myself thinking of him when I use a metaphor or hyperbole in my writing. In those moments, I think of the stern, yet humorous and compassionate way Mr. DeNike taught his students. We engaged in critical and analytical thought. We laughed at his jokes, and we knew to shape up when he gave us a stern look.

On the last day of classes my senior year, I visited Mr. DeNike's classroom to ask him to sign my yearbook, and he gave me a copy of John Nichols' “The Milagro Beanfield War” as a graduation gift. He thought I might enjoy critiquing Nichols, yet what stayed with me was a line from Zora Neale Hurston that Mr. DeNike wrote in his inscription, "Go forth and 'jump at the sun,' Gabby. Go get 'em at Stanford!"

Had it not been for teachers like Mr. DeNike, who saw potential in my writing and who encouraged me to love myself despite all I had endured, I don't think I would have accomplished everything I have. I think he would be very proud that the defiant Mexican girl in his AP English class, a product of migrant education and ESL programs, has become a published poet and a Ph.D. student.

It is because of teachers like Mr. DeNike that I learned to jump at the sun.

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