After teaching for over 20 years at high schools, community colleges and universities, in a variety of locations, Northwood English teacher Charles Gates opens up multiple gates to places outside Irvine that have been part of his life story.
Armin Abaye and Vineet Palepu: What was it like teaching in other places?
Charles Gates: You know it’s a different environment. College is much different from high school, and community college is different from universities. I like teaching high school better because the impact that I have on kids is more than it was in college.
AA and VP: What school did you have the biggest impact at?
CG: I’ve had a pretty big impact here teaching AP for nine years, helping a lot of kids avoid taking English at UC Berkeley and UCLA. Here kids still need to learn how to write well to get ready for college, but I don’t see as many social dramas play out here. There are no kids who aren’t eating, kids who don’t have parents in the house or kids who don’t have anywhere to live. I don’t see that here as much.
AA and VP: When you were working in Northern California, in San Francisco, how many years did you teach there?
CG: I was up there ten years between Sacramento and San Francisco.
AA and VP: What was it like teaching at the inner city schools?
CG: When you go in, they basically tell you you’re on your own. They don’t want kids being sent to the office because they don’t have a pencil or something, because they have serious issues like gang issues, abuse problems, drugs, whatever, that they have to deal with. I was taught by my earlier mentors to handle everything by myself unless it was an emergency; otherwise, handle it yourself.
AA and VP and VP: Did you have to deal with serious problems more often there?
CG: Every year there was some kind of serious problem. I had a kid arrested for first degree murder; that was pretty disconcerting. There were racial fights at lunch a lot, more so in the earlier part of my career during the 90s. Things were a lot more tense after the LA riots for a couple years.
AA and VP: Is there anything students in San Francisco did better than kids at Northwood?
CG: I think there’s a lot of kids there who showed an incredible amount of perseverance, despite family life or financial or socio-economic problems that you don’t deal with here. They were able to see school as a ticket out of the inner city. I saw a lot of kids with resilience and perseverance.
AA and VP: In different parts of the country, schools obviously focus on different things. How different was the emphasis on something like sports in Northern California?
CG: Sports was a lot more focused on than it is here. I liked being in that environment because at our school we did well in pretty much every [sport]. There was one kid who won the state championship in triple jump doing over 51 feet. It changed his life. Before the state championship he was getting full scholarship offers from Cal States. After that they were from Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, Oregon, all the big track schools offering him scholarships cause he was a state champion.
AA and VP: Do you have a story of someone who really stood out to you?
CG: I had twin girls in my class, and I was playing music from a blues artist named Muddy Waters. I told the class that if anyone knows who the artist of this song is, I’ll give you an A. These two girls immediately said Muddy Waters and I was like “woah, there’s nothing else I can teach you.” They had an A in the class anyways, so it didn’t really matter, but I thought it was pretty funny.
On a more serious note, I also had several situations helping kids get out of gangs and kids being abused at home. I had to call the cops a couple times for kids who were getting black eyes. It’s not pleasant, but ultimately you feel like you did the only thing you can do. You can’t ignore it.