When I was a wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter in high school, I once interviewed a local teacher who had held her job for more than 30 years. At one point in our conversation, I asked if she had ever been recognized by the city — my assumption being that anyone who had served her school for so long must have a plaque or key of some kind.
She seemed pleasantly surprised by the question, but responded that no, the politicians hadn't come knocking. That's the story for most teachers, who, the occasional state award or newspaper article aside, leave most of their legacy in the memories of former students.
Right now, though, a man who taught for three decades in Huntington Beach has become a national celebrity of sorts — and it had nothing to do with winning a prize or having a school named after him.
Rather, James Atteberry, a social studies teacher at Sowers Middle School during the 1970s, came to prominence after the Oregonian ran a story about one of his former students who apologized to him for a 39-year-old slight.
To summarize in brief: Larry Israelson, one of Atteberry's top students, asked to be transferred out of his class in 1973 due to rumors that Atteberry was gay and that the teacher's praise for Israelson was sexually motivated. The second part of the rumor was false, but the first was correct, although Atteberry, like many other gay teachers at the time, prudently stayed in the closet.
For decades, Israelson felt remorseful about his actions, and when he saw Atteberry's name in a 2009 Oregonian story, he contacted reporter Tom Hallman Jr. and asked to be connected to his former teacher, with whom he finally mended fences.
Hallman wrote a story about the apology, and then I got involved. Because the Oregonian piece had a Huntington Beach angle, I posted it on Facebook — and promptly got a comment from Merle Moshiri, a Surf City resident and environmental activist, who wrote that Atteberry had taught one of her children and that he was "a gentleman & a scholar."
Moshiri connected me to Dareen Yonts, Atteberry's principal back in the day, who emailed me a glowing account of his work in the classroom. Atteberry, she said, was a master of the Socratic Method and made himself available to students before and after class.
Finally, I was left with a burning question: How did Atteberry feel about his teaching days from 40 years ago suddenly highlighting the news and social media? I contacted Clatsop CASA — the nonprofit, mentioned in the Oregonian, where he now volunteers — and got a call back within an hour.
As it turned out, Atteberry still hadn't gotten used to the media attention. But he couldn't deny that the recognition was nice.
"It's mixed emotions," he told me. "The article has a lot to do with my personal life. I've never really been out in the open about my personal life. I lived in Sunset Beach for some years and moved to Laguna to keep my personal life separate from the district I was in. It's kind of outing me after so many years."
In the wake of the Oregonian story, which NPR picked up days later, many of Atteberry's former students called him — not to apologize for their own misdeeds, but to reminisce about the good times and thank him for inspiring them.
As for his former student who started the media ball rolling, Atteberry didn't harbor any resentment.
'I knew something was wrong, absolutely," he said. "For boys at that age, it's a very sensitive time. In some ways, it can be one of the worst experiences of their lives."
Having been a gawky seventh-grader myself, I can say without hesitation that middle school was the worst time of my life. I was so miserable during those years that a few months ago, when I cleared out some old papers at home, I literally chucked my graduation certificate in the fire — a symbolic way of killing those wretched memories.
But sometimes, the way to deal with wretched memories isn't to kill them; it's to make amends. For Atteberry and his former student, that turned out to be the case. And thanks to that, one of the thousands of teachers who shaped minds 40 years ago, most of whom will never be mentioned on NPR, has gotten his national due.
City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at email@example.com.