"Like, this cell phone," he said, looking at it with amusement and setting it back down on his desk in the corner of the colorful classroom.
George Savatgy, an icon at John Baldwin Elementary School, is retiring this month after 40 years of teaching - 36 of them at the Danville school.
"I really enjoy being around kids and I always have," he said after school let out last Thursday. "Ten- and 11-year-olds are so much fun."
And the kids adore him, too. He's spirited, funny, and fit as a fiddle at 61.
"He was amazing. He is amazing. I'm so glad that he chose to teach," said Stephen Pramme, a former student. Pramme, 25, has since graduated from Savatgy's own alma mater, UCLA.
He said it's the little things that make Savatgy stand out. For example, about two weeks ago the teacher rode his bike to work from his home in Pleasant Hill for the 1,700th day in a row - nine-and-a-half years without missing a single day come rain or shine.
"School is a good bike ride interrupted," Savatgy joked, mimicking the famous Mark Twain quote, "Golf is a good walk spoiled."
In the classroom he makes a point to challenge his students. Though he said the curriculum has devolved from "an inch deep and a mile wide to a half inch deep and two miles wide," he integrates reading, writing and social studies to make sure no subject falls by the wayside.
At the end of every year he requires each student to write a 5,000-word story. They'll moan about it at first but once they start writing they get hooked, he said. "It's a big accomplishment for them when they see they wrote this big, fat, 20-page story."
And it doesn't stop there. He also teaches all his students to play chess; he feels the game can be a huge ego boost for kids who struggle academically but shine on the chessboard.
"Kids that can't concentrate for 10 minutes in class can sit and concentrate on a 40-minute chess game without looking up," he said. "Every kid is good at something, if you can find it."
Ironically, Savatgy despised school growing up. He never intended to be a teacher, but joined the National Teacher Corps as a youth eager to make a difference. At 21 he was sent to an inner city school in South Central Los Angeles and a few years later moved north and started at John Baldwin.
He's seen a lot of change since that first teaching gig in '68, when girls wore skirts to school and bullies were more prone to throw sharp punches than sharp words.
Back then the cool-guy teacher with the long ponytail helped introduce soccer and capture the flag to the school, and remembers infuriating some parents by suggesting the girls try wearing pants so they could play sports.
The kids have changed over the years, too. For one thing, their time is much more structured, he noticed.
"They have organized sports, organized Scouts, organized church groups," he said. "They really don't have time to be by themselves."
He fears it leaves little room for imagination. "I think kids don't have enough free time these days where they get to be creative and do what they want."
Today's generation, growing up in the fast-paced, high-tech world of TV and videogames, is harder to reach, he said. And it's harder to hold their attention once you get it.
"You have to be a comedian. You have to put on a show and make them watch it," he said.
This is something he believes is one of his strengths as a teacher. And Pramme agreed, remembering that Savatgy's "ability to connect to the students" always made his class entertaining.
"He was interested in learning and interested in the kids learning, and never lost that passion. And because of that the kids connected with him and wanted to know what he knew," said Brad Wilson, a former student from 35 years ago whose own children now go to John Baldwin.
"Some teachers, you think that they should have retired years ago because it seems like the passion's gone," Wilson said. "And that certainly wasn't him."
About 1,200 kids have passed through Savatgy's classroom over the years and he remembers nearly every one of them. It's easy to get attached to the students, he said.
"You have this family of kids and one day they're gone. You give them report cards and they disappear," he sighed. "And that's always hard. So June is a real bittersweet time."
This year especially. Having taught at John Baldwin for two-thirds of his life, he knows it won't be easy to say goodbye.
Savatgy plans to spend his free time adventure backpacking and checking out the sights in the spring, fall and winter for a change. He said he'd like to somehow stay involved with education after retiring, too.
"I'm really gonna miss a lot of things about teaching," he said. "The most rewarding thing is just day to day being with the kids ... It's been a wonderful career."
District teachers retiring this year
Atwater, Pat - Los Cerros Middle
Bell, Donna - Green Valley Elementary
Bench, Gayle - Venture
Caplier, Sylvie - San Ramon Valley High
Debus, Linda - Walt Disney Elementary
Diamond, Joan - Venture
Fitch, Jeanette - Green Valley Elementary
Foster, Leanne - Monte Vista High
Heeb, Stanley - Monte Vista High
Hodge, Mary Beth - Pine Valley Middle
Johnson, Eileen - John Baldwin Elementary
Johnson, Richard - Venture
Kellner, Valerie - Green Valley Elementary
Mc Clure, Mary - Stone Valley Middle
Orman, Nancy - Greenbrook Elementary
Quinn, Mary - Windemere Ranch Middle
Ransdell, Kathryn - Vista Grande Elementary
Ritts, Craig - San Ramon Valley High
Rix, Susan (Penny) - Alamo Elementary
Rotner, Gayle - John Baldwin Elementary
Saupe, Rebecca - Country Club Elementary
Savatgy, George - John Baldwin Elementary
Simms, Susan - Greenbrook Elementary
Snow, Allen - Charlotte Wood Middle
Tingley, Danvil - Country Club Elementary
Williams, Paula - Greenbrook Elementary
Willing, Mavis - Special Ed.
Woodhouse, Elizabeth - Pine Valley Middle
Yamashita, Kathleen - Cal High
Yokomizo, Donna - Hidden Hills Elementary
This story contains 1070 words.
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