Math Teacher Delivers a Final Lesson

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Retiring math teacher Gary Shapiro, second from left, spoke at last week’s commencement exercises for Laguna Beach High School. Valedictorian Grant Barton addresses his classmates. Photo by Mitch Ridder.
Retiring math teacher Gary Shapiro, second from left, spoke at last week’s commencement exercises for Laguna Beach High School. Valedictorian Grant Barton addresses his classmates. Photos by Mitch Ridder.

Although he’s got a quite a reputation as a crooner, Gary Shapiro, aka “Shap,” is not one prone to tears. Admittedly a left-brain, linear-type guy,he nearly choked up this week talking about retiring after 33 years as an advanced math teacher and class troubadour at Laguna Beach High School.

“I loved every minute of it,” said Shapiro. “I enjoyed going to school every day. I enjoyed seeing the students and the staff at the high school, through all the changes. I couldn’t have done anything better. I am going to miss a lot of it.”

Besides getting the job of his dreams at LBHS, he continued pursuing his second love, playing guitar, even in the classroom.

Shapiro has played guitar since he was 8 and later supplemented college expenses by playing coffee houses. When he started teaching in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, he found that breaking out a tune broke down barriers.

“I taught in some rough schools back there,” he said. “If I did music for my students, they would listen to me. We had that in common. It made them, I think, take me more seriously,” he said.

No more rolling eyes when he’d tell students that math held important life lessons. “I’m not necessarily going to sing the math theorem to them,” he said, “but I can at least play music they like, and they’ll trust me a little more. Plus, I’ve got a captive audience.”

When he was hired at the high school here, Shapiro was expecting to get class left-overs. Here, he was offered his dream job right off, teaching advanced math. “Seven years into my career and I got to teach top-level math. I couldn’t have done anything better for my career.”

He also found a slightly different tenor in the classroom: bright students, some already well-traveled and others heading to the top colleges in the nation. “I had to really be on my toes because these were smart kids,” he said.

It’s not that the East Coast kids lacked potential; they had fewer advantages, he said. “When I taught in New Hampshire, there was very little for the students to do except alcohol, drugs and sex. We had lots of girls graduating pregnant,” he said.

While students here face similar choices, they have numerous options to pursue, including an abundance of outside activities, he said. “They had a wholesomeness about them,” he said. Most of the time, he said, they were eager to learn.

“I didn’t grow up with surfers, so I was always amazed the high school had a surf team,” he said. “I never went to a high school nor did I ever teach at a high school before Laguna that had dance.”

Chris Herzfeld, completing his first year as LBHS principal, described Shapiro as “pretty much all that you want in a teacher. He’s got that fatherly demeanor. The kids love him; the kids know that he loves them. He’s strict and challenging and completely fair. There’s a certain laid-backness to his strictness.”

Without a daily bell schedule or lesson timeline, Shapiro said he’s taking a year to figure out what’s next, exercise and take better care of himself. And to play his guitar. He’ll perform at the Sawdust Art Festival again this summer and possibly sing again with former student Clair Howell, who dropped his pre-calculus class mid-semester in her senior year.

“Yeah, he didn’t hold a grudge,” she said. “Shap treats his students like they’re actual people. He’s interesting and he can talk for hours. He’s just a nice guy. He’s like a friend!”

Gary Shapiro pursues his second love, performing at Zinc Café during last weekend’s Fete de la Musique.
Gary Shapiro pursues his second love, performing at Zinc Café during last weekend’s Fete de la Musique.

Shapiro also gained the love of his community with his annual talent show and fundraiser, “No Suits Allowed,” more fondly known as “The Shap Show” with the popular teacher in every act. For 27 years, the show raised funds for a safe and sober grad-night party. This year, the variety show featuring students from all grades at the high school, raised $8,800, he said.

Two years ago, he organized an alumni Shap Show with only graduates, some from as far back as 1993, to raise money for the district’s orchestral strings instruction program. The show raised $16,000.

Shapiro announced his retirement to the senior class at the graduation ceremony last Thursday, June 18. “Whatever I say tonight, whether it’s funny or not funny, profound, stupid, or insulting you’ll forget it in 15 minutes. Unless it’s insulting.”

Shapiro considers himself a road warrior, traveling cross-country by car six times and up and down both coasts. “I cannot give you pearls of wisdom that will ease your way through the rest of your life,” he told them. “I can only give you information that I have found useful throughout my own journey. I mean, like, what do I know? I was going to tell you that individuality is the key to success, yet here you are dressed in identical caps and gowns.”

In true Shap style, practical, entertaining and perhaps even profound, he conveyed to his captive listeners important lessons learned on the road: always carry jumper cables and never tailgate a cattle truck, especially if you’re out of windshield-washer fluid.

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