Teaching for 47 years is rare, but teaching in the school district in which your dad taught and you grew up is rarer. If you also taught in three unrelated fields as well as coached during that span of time and inspired your students to win numerous awards, you might be one of a kind.
Jim Clarke, who retired last year after nearly a half-century of teaching in Los Banos, is indeed unique. Born in Wisconsin in 1947, then moving in the sixth grade to California when his father Don started teaching at Los Banos High School, Jim returned to his native state seven years later to enroll at the University of Wisconsin. He began as an engineering student but ended up majoring in his first love, art.
Jim hadn’t necessarily planned on a teaching career. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Wisconsin, he returned to California to earn a master’s degree in art at Sacramento State.
Soon after completing his master’s, Jim received a call from Los Banos school superintendent Sam Benidettino, who knew Jim’s father well. “We need a teacher badly,” Sam said. “Can you come now and teach here?”
Jim said yes and moved back to Los Banos in 1970 to teach not art, but special education, where Benidettino needed him. Jim had to travel regularly to Fresno for classes enabling him to teach with a temporary credential. He taught special education for three years to students in grades 4 through 6.
That was just the first step in five decades of teaching in Los Banos. After special education Jim taught art, then math for several years, then art again. As an art teacher his students excelled in both two- and three-dimensional media, winning state and regional awards for drawing, sculpture and ceramics.
“I love teaching,” Jim said. “That’s why I was always the first teacher to arrive on campus, usually an hour and a half before my first class.” Jim especially liked encouraging his students to develop their own talents, especially in art. “I wanted to give my students a good foundation in knowledge and skills,” he said, “and then enable their own creativity to emerge and flourish.”
When Jim was a teenager, he had seen what teaching was like, watching his dad teach industrial arts for Los Banos High in a metal shed on Pacheco Avenue, about a half-mile from the central campus located on Sixth and K Streets that eventually became Westside Elementary School.
Like his father Jim wanted to bring out his students’ unique talents. While teaching special ed, for example, Jim showed them how to make a 17-foot Trojan horse, which won first place in the May Day Kids Parade. The next year Jim was assigned to teach art at Los Banos Junior High.
Teaching art was especially enjoyable, and for the next five years that’s what he did – until California passed Proposition 13 in 1978, which dramatically reduced funding for schools. Many elective subjects were cut, including art, so the next year Jim started teaching mathematics at the high school. Meanwhile his father was reassigned to teach drafting.
“In college I liked math,” Jim said, “and took many mathematics courses. As a teacher, I soon developed a reputation of being a good math instructor because I was able to carefully explain and then show how to solve problems.”
When the state’s economy improved, Los Banos returned art to the junior high curriculum, and Jim returned to teaching art, his assignment for the next several decades until he retired in 2017. Along the way Jim also coached high school football for 25 years.
As an art teacher Jim’s particular interest was ceramics, and his ceramics students won many awards. About eight years ago Jim applied his interest in ceramics to a community project, “Empty Bowls.” Since then Empty Bowls has been an annual fundraising event in Los Banos to help feed people in need.
Jim suffered a stroke toward the end of his teaching career, but after a gradual rehabilitation, he now feels good. He especially likes taking his Porsche convertible out for a spin. And he enjoys his family. “I’m proud of my son Adrian and daughter Vanessa,” Jim said, “and I get a real kick out of my grandchildren Avery, Reed and Emery.”
Jim is at Starbucks almost every morning. It seems as though he’s still holding office hours. “I especially enjoy seeing people I had as students come up to me and say, “Thank you for being such a good teacher.”
John Spevak, a resident of Los Banos, wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.