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Wyatt Phipps (far right) is seen here in a file photo with students following the conclusion of a building project.
Wyatt Phipps (far right) is seen here in a file photo with students following the conclusion of a building project.

Every teacher at Gunnison High School (GHS) has an advisory class for four years and it is set up so that each kid checks in with their teacher every day of the week.

We watch the announcements, say the Pledge of Allegiance, check the F minus list, share music, accomplishments, failures and advice to those respective kids on their post-secondary choices. I have had four advisory classes over 15 years, and we have shared: death, accomplishments, heartbreak, divorces, scholarships, suicides, car wrecks, minors in possession, and my brutal honesty. Mr. Hanks calls it “building relationships.”

I teach high school woodshop and like all of the employees in the school district, we miss all of our kids terribly. Being without you is like having our legs snapped off and then shoved into our eye sockets. We're still crawling around blindly trying to teach you online or serve you in our best way, but we want to be with you! Not staring at a screen.

In 1985, in tenth grade my father passed away and my teachers took care of me. At his funeral my principal wrapped his ham hock sized fist around my tiny shoulders and said, “Boy, we're gonna get you through this.” My teachers tutored me after school and checked on me daily. My teachers were my motivating force to finish high school. If they had not been there, I would not have made it. They saved me.

The dreaded Mr. Howard Allen was my eighth grade teacher for homeroom, English and history at the tail end of his career. He was grumpy and crusty with a bald head that always shined, but had the type of wisdom that did not come from books, videos or computers. Mr. Allen was a depression era kid who told us about the transition from poverty to rural electrification and indoor plumbing and the magical lives it gave everybody. Mr. Allen was drafted into the U. S. Marine Corps during the Korean War and having lost family members and friends in World War II; he entered his draft as a Conscientious Objector — a big risk to him. The Marine Corps told him he was gonna be a Marine anyway, made him a Chaplains Aid after basic training and shipped him to the brutal Korean War Front.

1983-1984 was hard for my eighth grade class with Mr. Allen. That year our principal's wife was killed in a car wreck and their son was in our class. I remember the whole class crying the next day when we learned about the accident. On prom night a major wreck took the life of one of our classmate’s brothers. Mr. Allen gave us his heart, first teaching us that life was horribly unfair, using himself as an example of returning from the Korean War when many of his friends did not. He described to us what it was like to be in war and to perform “The Last Rights,” to dead and dying young men after battle and what it felt like when his oldest teenage son drowned on a swimming trip. He was born a teacher, who gave us life skills that cannot be learned without one.

When one of us eighth graders would be naughty in class, Mr. Allen would hand us a drink flat with a pair of fingernail clippers in it and say, “You know the drill.” The offending student would then leave the room, perch themselves on the hillside beside our classroom and then use the fingernail clippers to cut grass and fill the box while we got to watch. It was awesome, especially when the grass cutter would start pulling grass by the handful. Mr. Allen would open the window and politely but loudly say, “ONE BLADE AT A TIME.” The box was never filled, but Mr. Allen gave the kid the space they needed.

Then, somebody would say, “Mr. Allen, tell us about Marilyn Monroe!” and he would respond that we needed to do our lessons, but we would beg for the story. Ohhhh, his bald head would light up and he would shine, it was his best story and we were gonna hear it for the umpteenth time. The story was our light and kept us going!

As a Chaplin’s Aid for the Marine Corps, Mr. Allen was in charge of a group of Marines who built one of the stages that Marilyn Monroe performed on for Korean War soldiers. She gave 10 performances to over 100,000 soldiers over the course of four days. Mr. Allen would always tell us of the excitement that all those men had for her presence and their intense desire to make sure that she was safe. She was their light at the end of a horrible world event and she symbolized the American Dream that they all wanted to return to.

When Marilyn Monroe’s performance was over, she was helicoptered away and the Marines had to deconstruct her stage and dressing room. Mr. Allen’s greatest moment was then shared with us. Out of the wastebasket in her dressing room, he pulled several tissues with her lipstick prints upon them. Even though we knew the ending of the story… he would pause long enough for somebody to say, “Mr. Allen, what did you do with Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick tissues?” and he said, “Nobody would believe that a Marine Corps Chaplin’s Aid would have Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick blotted tissues, so I left them in the trash.” We all laughed and somebody always yelled, “You could have been rich!”

I am a teacher because of this man. We teachers LOVE all of our kids and we miss you desperately. We are in pain without you! We will all be back together soon! Those of you who have had my classes, always remember what I taught you during our lockdown training. YOU’RE WOLVES, NOT SHEEP! Howl every night!

“ONE BLADE AT A TIME!”

(Wyatt Phipps is the industrial arts teacher at Gunnison High School.)