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Thanksgiving with Two Students

By James Utt


By James Utt
By James Utt

When I was young and healthy, the only doctor I came in contact with was Doc Martens and his classic work boots, which I wore when I was trying to affect a rugged look. Now that I am four score and eight, I seem to have more doctors and therapists than friends. Let’s see, there is the internist, the cardiologist, the gastroenterologist, the neurologist, the orthopedic guys, and all the rehab workers that try their best to keep me on the court. Of course, my weakening eyesight requires an optometrist, who recently recommended that I see an ophthalmologist to have my retinas checked.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, I found myself in the examination room, palms sweaty, wondering if I would have a detached retina like Sugar Ray Leonard. But since I am not a professional boxer, I knew the chances of that were slim. The doctor entered the room and I extended a hand, hoping it was not too wet, and said, “Nice to meet you.”

“Actually, Mr. Utt, we have met before. I was a student in your honors cultural geography class at El Toro High School.”

Amazingly, I did recognize him, then the hard working “A” student, now a noted eye specialist from Princeton. He told me that he still remembered lessons that we did and how valuable they were. He did not remember many of the El Toro staff, but he remembered me, and gave me a heartfelt thanks for being someone who had inspired him.

Half an hour later, having learned that my retinas were fine, eyes still recovering from dilation, the street looking a “whiter shade of pale” even with dark glasses on, I felt damn good. I had made an impact on a student who was now a huge success. That is why I got into teaching; that is why all good teachers get into teaching.

Over the years, former students have written me letters, thanking me for what I had helped them learn and discover about themselves. I keep them in a suitcase that would be the first thing I grab in case of a fire. (Hey, I live in Mystic Hills where we always sweat out the Santa Ana winds.) I had won awards, The Register had run a front-page story, and KNBC had done a segment on me. I must have been one hell of a teacher. Back home, my eyesight returned to normal, I grabbed the Johnny Walker and toasted to myself, two or three times as I recall.

The next morning, low on gas, I pulled into a gas station on Broadway and began to fill up my tank. I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye. In Laguna, you develop a type of radar as to who has an address and who doesn’t. I could tell from the man’s clothes, he was almost certainly homeless. Keep your head down, look at the hose in your hand, maybe he will just keep walking. But, if he asks for money I will give him some. I’ve got money, he doesn’t.

He stopped. “Hello Mr. Utt, you live in Laguna now?” I looked at his face, vaguely familiar, but I could not recall the name. He sensed that and said his name and reminded me that he had been a student in my contemporary issues class several years before. Now, I remembered him.

“Yes, my wife and I moved here in 2001.”

“Would it be possible to borrow a dollar so I can get to the homeless shelter in the canyon?”

He stood in tattered work boots and dirty clothes; I stood next to my new BMW. I reached into my wallet and gave him a $10, not sure if he was grateful or insulted. Actually, I wondered if my $10 would do any good at all. Maybe he would be like that lady who wrote all those Harry Potter books, who was on welfare before she found her stride. Maybe.

One more professional I see is my therapist, to whom I will recount this story. As a teacher, I often saw myself as “the sage on the stage,” rather than the instructor who worked one-on-one with students. I wonder if I had given this student a little more individual attention, would he still be on his way to the homeless shelter this Thanksgiving eve?


James Utt is a retired high school teacher who has lived in Laguna Beach for 15 years.

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  1. Jim Utt taught my freshman Cultural Geography honors class and my Contemporary Issues class at El Toro High. He was one of the best instructors I have ever had the pleasure of learning from. He taught us about the world and to think critically about the issues of the day. He assigned us daily readings from Newsweek magazine and gave us the space to discuss and debate some of the most contentious topics in the news. I am am more well rounded, well informed human being because of Jim Utt and I am grateful for his insight, wisdom and guidance.

  2. Mr. Utt is the best! I have vivid memories of taking his class as a Freshman in 2005. Now a 7th grade SS teacher, I found myself quoting him in class today while presenting my students with various moral dilemmas during a Socratic seminar after learning about Enlightenment philosophy:…”Would you kill an ant? about a cricket?.. What about a bird? A dog?…So you’re saying that ‘killing two people’ would be ‘okay’, but under no circumstance should someone kill a dog!?”
    Mr. Utt taught me at a young age HOW to think and not WHAT to think, which is what I challenge, inspire, and support my students in doing..cheers to that, Jim!!

  3. Particularly the message of the article expresses the harshest reality of teaching in that not all students see the success we hope for even as we do all we can for all students.


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