A Calling

A Calling

The most passionate voices don’t come from a source everyone can hear. They are from a singular inner voice only heard by one.

In the half-century I knew him, he could never say San Francisco in two distinct words, despite being born and raised across the Bay in Oakland. Even though he was raised by a father who was neglectful, he became a dad who encouraged and supported his children and his students. He never coddled them while advocating for them. He encouraged people to try something new, not accepting failure as failure, but as a learning experience. Despite being told he would never be successful as an educator, he ignored the derision and became a nationally recognized expert in the field, author of several books and many articles. He was Robert Tierney, my dad.

Bob was born during the Great Depression where stability of any sort was scant. His father was married numerous times, forcing moves to a variety of “family” households during Bob’s formative years. He learned to attend to his needs in creative and unconventional ways while striving to attain personal goals.

When he and his friend Cliff decided to create a youth football team, Cliff’s mother refused to purchase her son a uniform. She did not approve of the game. To solve the problem, Cliff bought a football uniform…for Bob. Bob purchased a football uniform for Cliff, knowing his mother could not force the refusal of a gift. The two became player-coaches for the West Oakland Tigers before they even got to high school. Ironically, the chosen color scheme for the uniforms was silver and black which would become the colors of his hometown Oakland Raiders to whom he would be among the first season ticket holders.

He grew up stuttering and compensated for this flaw by capitalizing on his creativity. He learned to be an excellent sketch artist and impactful writer. These skills did not stop his peers from laughing at his speech. To silence his critics, he learned to box and demonstrated his ability to anyone who insulted him or his friends. He gained a fearsome reputation on the streets of West Oakland, but this did not stop the insults from authorities at school.

 When he tried out for the role of Prince Charming in the school play, Snow White, he was relegated to the role of Dopey. Dopey had no speaking roles.

Despite the absences of his father, he created a stable enough life to be able to play football at Oakland Tech for Coach Gil Callies. Bob made a name for himself in the days of the two-way player by becoming a ferocious tackler and punishing rusher with surprising speed. The sacrifice he made was giving up his beloved game of baseball because Coach Callies insisted football players run track in the spring. He learned to respect the wishes of his coach and dislike track, though he could still run a respectable 100-yard dash.

During his high school years, he and Cliff took every opportunity they had to get out of the city to hike in the Coast Range, the Sierra Nevada, and the Trinity Alps of California. This would stead him well after high school when he enlisted in the U.S. Army towards the end of World War II. He went from boot camp to Jump School where he graduated with his wings at the end of the war.

While he was in middle school, he encountered a scared newcomer girl at the beginning of the school year. She had moved from Lost Hills, California, where she herded sheep, to Oakland. On the first day of school, his interest in her was noted by another student. Her honor was defended by Bob who was promptly suspended. He decided to make the most of the event by walking the new girl home. Jacqueline and he were to become life-long friends, and when he signed up to go overseas to occupy the island of Japan, he told her he loved her and if he still did when he got back, he would marry her; he did and they were.

They moved across the Bay to San Francisco where he and Cliff attended San Francisco State, striving to become teachers while also playing football. The ‘50s were a time of turbulent change in the teaching profession. The state was focused on producing better-prepared professionals. To that end, standards were tightened, and expectations raised especially in the discipline of science where Bob was seeking his credential. Despite having a son with a heart defect and working long hours in the park system and as a Little League umpire, he managed to get through college, thanks largely to the support of his wife and the GI Bill. In the spring of 1955, he faced the final hurdle to attaining his teaching credential.

For most new teachers seeking their credentials, the required oral examination was a formality. This was not to be the case for Bob.

He failed the examination the first time and the second. He failed it again and again, but he refused to give up.

He had set the goal of becoming a teacher of science. He finally passed the examination but was given the warning he would be a failure. He was told even if he was hired, students would never respect him, and he would eventually have to seek another profession.

Bob retired after spending 31 years in the education profession. During his years in the profession, he would open two high schools, create a groundbreaking science/writing curriculum, and create a national organization called the National Writing Project. He would also begin a football coaching career with Bill Walsh at Washington High school and coach his beloved baseball and softball while becoming an expert about West Coast algae and father of three. All three of his children would enter the teaching profession.

One of the tenants he shared during seminars was “a teacher is always a role model, but anyone who says they know exactly what their students are learning does not understand the profession”. He may have taught biology and coached sports, but his charges were learning to seek their dreams beyond the barriers others were willing to place before them.

At the inauguration of Joe Biden, the country was treated to a recitation of a 22-year-old daughter of a teacher. Poet laureate Amanda Gorman recited her poem, The Hill We Climb. She was stunning, but many people did not know she strived to overcome a speaking flaw. She never accepted her disorder as a barrier, and she became the Youth Poet laureate of Los Angeles at the age of 16. Like Bob, she understood life is not bound by how others see you; the limits are set by how you see yourself and how well you listen to your inner voice.

Teaching is more than a profession; it is an answer to the inner voice telling you to share all of life’s lessons to reform the world for the better. It is a calling.

John Tierney spent over three decades in the classroom as a social studies teacher.  In 2016 he was named Nevada State Teacher of the Year and in 2017 he became an NEA Global Fellow for China. He was a national facilitator for PBS TeacherLine and  currently serves as the chair of  the Institutional Advisory Council for Great Basin College and as a member of the Nevada State Superintendent's Teacher Advisory Cabinet. When not working in education, he is a husband, musician, fly fisher, dad, and grandpa.



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