From cardboard shoes to national awards

This is a feature written by 8th grade guest writer Kevin Arifin.

At exactly 5:30 in the morning, about two and a half hours before school started, he would rise out of bed, not to an alarm clock — he could not afford one — but to feed the animals and get to school. Every day, he pushed the pedals of his bike four miles to school and four miles back because his family could not afford a house anywhere closer. On top of that, he journeyed another eight miles to and from after-school practices.

Sixteen miles on his bike every day.

Not to mention the fact that he saw his sister come home in her cardboard running shoes every night, because his family could not afford regular ones. And after graduating high school, he had to choose a college based on the cost of tuition, not on what he wanted to major in.

This was eighth grade social science teacher Alan Haskvitz when he was 15 years old, over 57 years ago.

“So, growing up in essentially poverty, sort of hardens you to the realities of life and it prepares you in a way, a negative way, but it prepares you. One thing is that you want to get better. You are never accepting of your situation. You want to make yourself better and you realize that that requires hard work and no one is going to give you anything,” Haskvitz said. “That’s sort of humorous when you find that most lottery tickets are bought by extremely poor people because they are trying to get rich quick without much work. It’s just not going to happen. Maybe the money going towards the lottery would be better spent on something else. That’s what you do. You work hard to get where you want to go. When you get there, you feel good about it and if not, you have tried. You always try.”

Behind the long list of awards on his resume and numerous thank you letters written for him is the man many students have seen either sitting behind the desk in front of the classroom or tending to the butterfly garden outside for the past forty-five years. Many of them question who he is.

“We always wondered in class, ‘Who is Haskvitz?’ He never told us,” eighth grade student Brittnee Pham said. “Most of us only knew him as our social studies teacher.”

After graduating from the Memorial University in 1972, Haskvitz decided to go into teaching. While a teacher’s salary barely paid the bills, he wanted to teach others who had the opportunities he missed out on.

“I went into teaching because I saw there was more to life than money. Growing up in those situations, I saw that money did not mean everything. I wanted to help people rather than worry about money,” Haskvitz said.

In his first year of teaching at Suzanne Middle School, two of his students, Gary San Angel and Roger Triffo, appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times for paraphrasing and simplifying the Los Angeles County voting instructions for one of Haskvitz’s assignments. Both of them gave him a small trophy that he still remembers and keeps in his large stacks of awards hidden away.

Despite being recognized by his students, Haskvitz did not receive many awards during his first year. But he was able to see his students succeed in high school and beyond. In 1990, his students pinned up a safety sign on the corner of Mont-Saint Pierre in Quebec, Canada. The students came back to him years later to thank Haskvitz for his teachings. To him, this was an award in itself.

“I get so many letters from students, thanking me, from all over the world. I even got letters back from kids who had me 25 to 30 years ago!” Haskvitz said. “Letter after letter coming in saying thank you, I finally figured out what you were doing. Recently I got from a senior from U.C. Berkeley, who was in her class, and it finally dawned on her what I have been teaching her. Eight years later, she thanked me. This happens all the time, they say where did I learn that skill and realize I taught them that skill. The letters make me feel like I have an impact.”

However, as his students succeeded, the struggles Haskvitz had to face increased. Parents, fellow teachers and the Walnut Valley Unified School District surrounded him with questions. Why are you making the students do these irrelevant projects for the community? Why are you not sticking to the textbook? His new teaching method created a disconnection between him and the people who believed the textbook was the way to go.

Parents also criticized Haskvitz over seeing their child get B’s and C’s for the first time. Many students stepped into his classroom without knowing how to take notes or study for a test, and struggled to get A grades because they expected to do handouts.

“Despite winning, being selected as one of the best teachers in the United States, 6 times, besides being on television, national public radio, being in textbooks, having books written about my style, I was turned down to be a mentor teacher at this district 15 times,” Haskvitz said. “So, they just simply don’t like what I’m doing. Recently, I was selected the region state’s middle school teacher of the year. I did not even bother letting the district know. It won’t make any difference.”

So Haskvitz began working outside the school district. He owns the award-winning Reach Every Child resource website where he collaborates with other teachers worldwide and publishes his own articles to inspire other teachers. He also reaches out to the community through environmental projects and has adopted a vegetarian wolf, Denali, online.

“I went outside the district. I went outside to the public. I understand that the district is never going to do anything for me,” Haskvitz said. “I’m not interested in being a big fish in a small pond. I want to go above and beyond. That’s why I compete nationally and internationally. I know if I can be the best in the United States or as good as anyone else in the United States, that’s good enough. Walnut does not help me out. So, I start my internet sites. I start all sorts of things, to help with that, to promote my way of teaching. And I get letters from students and teachers, who thank me for things.”

This year will be Haskvitz’s last year in room 10, a place where he has been teaching for the past 30 years. However, this is not going to stop him from teaching others about learning. He will continue to publish articles online and research ways for students to learn more effectively.

“There’s a quote by Lombardi, the coach of Green Bay, and they won all those championships. His quote was, and this is verbatim, ‘The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.’ So, I have 45 years in this, and it’s hard to stop,” Mr Haskvitz said. “Ultimately, the future does not belong to the people who are learning, does not belong to the people who have their Ph.D. at the universities, it belongs to the people that can learn. And because civilization is changing so rapidly, the people that can adjust faster will be the future. When I retire, one thing I would like to do is work in this area. I publish a lot of stuff about that.”

But it’s not so much about winning the awards and becoming successful, it’s about how he got there — the untold story of Alan Haskvitz, the man behind the desk.

“Nobody asked me how. That means that they are content with what they have. I just have to accept it. That’s why I do so much work outside the school district. This is the key. If they aren’t interested, maybe someone else will be,” Haskvitz said. “I just appreciated teaching kids. It was definitely my pleasure. They’re fun and entertaining. It was nice to see their growth. It was exciting to see them sort of grow into adults. Finally, perhaps most importantly, they have every disease known to man. They bring them to school and because I’m here I kind of get immune to all those diseases. They make you stronger with all those diseases. I will miss that immunity.”

By Kevin Arifin, Guest writer and Bryan Wong, Feature editor

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