|Since long before ‘character education’ became trendy, one man has taught his students right from wrong.
In Ramona, California, an unincorporated rural valley town located 36 miles, 1,400 feet in elevation, and approximately seven cultural light years from downtown San Diego, it doesn’t take long to realize that Olive Peirce Middle School is not a typical Southern California institution of learning. For one thing, unlike just about any other public school south of the Hollywood sign, there’s no bristling perimeter fence to keep the kids caged and the intruders at bay—you just walk right in.
Everywhere you look, there are slogans of the type seen in abundance at rah-rah continuing education seminars: “Learning is our Number 1 priority"; “Be someone others can depend on"; “Victories are in the classroom.” But here’s the twist—at this school, the 7th and 8th graders can actually recite these and other bits of Olive Peirce propaganda word for word and in fact volunteer to do so. Like giggling junior Communists at a May Day parade, three blushing student office volunteers tell a visitor in unison, “We believe in a safe and caring environment where we demonstrate pride in our campus, and we treat each other with dignity, honesty, kindness, and respect.” This is the first of the school’s Five Values, memorized and internalized by every last child, teacher, and custodian. It’s the career-crowning fruit of a seed planted more than 20 years ago by high school dropout-turned-values teacher Gene Doxey, who retires this June after shaping generations of students, teachers, and even administrators.
Gene Doxey talks with one of his Contemporary Issues students at Olive Peirce Middle School in Southern California.
Every one of the Ramona Unified School District’s 7,200 students is eventually funneled through Doxey’s Contemporary Issues class, a required rite of passage between elementary school and the hormone minefield of the later grades. It was developed by Doxey in the late 1970s, after California’s booming marijuana culture scared the state into requiring mandatory drug-prevention programs at schools. Doxey, then a math and English teacher at Olive Peirce, volunteered for the job, ultimately expanding the course into a mix of developmental science, be-careful-out-there pep talks, and extended self-help metaphors—pretty groovy stuff for a back-country ranching community that has survived nasty methamphetamine problems and occasional wildfires. Within a couple of years of its inception, the budget- busting effects of California’s property-tax-capping Proposition 13 placed the elective in jeopardy. Rather than jettisoning the class, however, a supportive school board decided to protect it by making Contemporary Issues mandatory for all 7th graders.
Long before “values” and “self-esteem” became curricular buzzwords, then clichés, in larger cities and school districts, this youthful, silver-haired 59-year-old ex-surfer who wears his heart on his sleeve found a solution to a perennial pedagogical dilemma: how to teach morals in a testing- mad, secular environment. “See, I’m completely different than what No Child Left Behind is talking about,” Doxey says in his sandy-throated, thick-tongued voice. Standing just over6 feet tall, with blazing, slightly haunted blue eyes, he looks like a middleweight who retired early to give the chalkboard life a try. “But I feel that with what I’m doing, you can really get to these kids. Give them reasons to try, reasons to believe in themselves, reasons to motivate themselves.”
Beverly Hardcastle Stanford, director of the Center for Research on Ethics and Values at Azusa Pacific University, and a longtime advocate for values education, says that as the profile of values-based education has risen in recent years, it has sparked controversy for blurring the lines between public education and private morality. Generally, though, “enough people buy into the idea that...there are some universal virtues that all religions and nonreligious people can address,” Stanford says.
Meanwhile, away from the glare of big-city education politics, Doxey has been able to blend fuzzy self-esteem building and clinical sex ed material with bracingly frank personal testimony and religiously grounded values lessons. The combination can sound jarring at times to an outsider, but judging by the profusion of hugs and special handshakes that he routinely receives after each class, the kids dig it.
“In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortion,” Doxey tells his class one March morning, launching into one of his characteristically slightly rambling mini- sermons. “From that time to now, more than 30 million abortions have occurred. The day you were born—the day you were born!—there were 2,740 abortions. Thank God it wasn’t you. You survived.” The most precarious time for a child’s life, he tells them, is between the ages of 0 and 2. “I know—I had one die. Eighteen months old. She was born with congenital heart disease. She was beautiful.”
Doxey’s credibility comes in large part from displaying his old wounds.
The class goes deathly quiet. Students lean in to hear their teacher, whose grief still looks fresh. “Here you are, 12 years old,” he says, pointing to a chalk time line that portrays the 0-2 age bracket as a danger zone, the 2-12 range as still perilous, and 12-77 as comparatively worry-free. “If you don’t make it to here,” he says, pointing to 77, “you will do something to kill yourself. You will decide to smoke, get involved with drugs and alcohol, be sexually active, take high risks.... So wake up! You have so much to offer, man. I had an18-month-old. She never made it to 7th grade.” Moments later, with the class still hushed, Doxey walks around, shakes every student’s hand and looks each one in the eye, saying, “You’re unique, you know that?”
Doxey’s credibility comes in large part from displaying his old wounds, from the early deaths of his parents and daughter to the harrowing experiences of his childhood friends. Students are reminded subtly, albeit daily, that he graduated from the school of hard knocks. “Gene has the opportunity to connect with kids based on his own experiences, which were not positive,” says Olive Peirce principal Linda Solis. It’s one thing to receive lectures about clean living from an unimpeachable adult, but quite another to hear warnings from a self-described rebellious and spontaneous former beach boy who got kicked out of high school for bad behavior before eventually rebounding and becoming a teacher.
“Public education and myself just didn’t get along,” Doxey says with a chuckle. After bouncing around at a variety of odd jobs, he finally heard an encouraging word from a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who told the computer-room operator that he was too bright not to have a degree. “That kind of stuck in my mind,” he recalls.
The halls at Olive Peirce Middle are festooned with slogans that reflect Doxey’s teachings.
Seventh grader Harryson Franz, who like most of Doxey’s students combines the shaky physical awkwardness of adolescence with a surprisingly assertive vocabulary and a willingness to talk about raw emotions, describes how one assigned reading on “reframing a situation” caused him to turn the other cheek when two kids ran up from behind him and hit him. “At first I was shouting, like, ‘What are you doing?’” Franz says. “But then I felt like, Well, maybe they’re, like, late to a class or angry about something.” Schoolmate Nicole Meader, a small brunette with big eyes and a soft voice, chimes in: “I think the class is helpful because of the stuff that goes on in people’s lives and what has been going on in my life. It just helps to understand why stuff happens and how to deal with it.” Meader’s father recently died.
The roll of students Doxey has influenced stretches back a generation—several in his current class have parents and other relatives who took Contemporary Issues, and at least a dozen Ramona School District employees, including one Olive Peirce assistant principal, are also alumni. In January, Doxey was nominated for inclusion in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers for the third time, a feat all the more remarkable considering that recommendations have to come from high-achieving students in either high school or college, not middle school. Doxey also receives the occasional letter from far-flung alumni whose abilities he helped unlock, such as a cerebral palsy sufferer who recently sent notice that he was receiving his doctorate in medicine. But in the run-up to his retirement, Doxey wanted to see what effect he had had on his other students’ lives, so he sent out questionnaires to his students from four or five years ago. Their reflections, often written in the margins, are astonishing. In response after response, the word “friend” shows up again and again. Many former students portrayed Contemporary Issues as an island of empathy in the terrifying sea of middle school. “Thanks to your class, I was able to come out of my shell and face my problems and help other people with theirs,” wrote one. “You truly are an exceptional teacher because you make differences in people’s lives, and you are there even five or maybe 20 years later.”
Doxey, who is taking early retirement in June, grows noticeably wistful when recounting such testimonials. “Now I’m looking back at everything and going, ‘Wow, what a great ride,’” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “And more than that, I want to look at what impact have I had. I don’t want to be just a teacher....I want be the one who has impact on a kid’s life.”
When Doxey walks across the small campus, it’s not just the kids who throng to him. “How do I get to be as cool as you?” a playground supervisor yells across the quad as Doxey strides into the administration building. His approach—removing barriers between teachers and students and encouraging open dialogue on private emotions and nonacademic behavior—has rubbed off noticeably on the rest of the faculty. And his stature—he says if Ramona ever incorporated as a city, he could run for mayor and win—helped Solis implement a top-to-bottom cultural overhaul of the campus, blending Doxey’s empathetic openness with the latest recommendations from books such as Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and Robert Marzano, Jane Pollock, and Debra Pickering’s Classroom Instruction That Works.
“Gene has always been a tremendous supporter of me, and as an icon in this community, that was crucial,” says Solis, an effusive Texan with dyed red hair and a penchant for frilly purple jackets. The campus—which everyone actually does refer to as “our learning community"—is a festival of hugs and good cheer, where kids go to “Choices” instead of detention (a philosophical change Doxey helped push) , playground supervisors make video presentations for statewide education conferences, and the principal appears on television every morning to respond to student complaints and concerns.
But will it all hang together after Doxey’s departure? Will Contemporary Issues live on after the man who started it all leaves? Solis says yes to both, but her own faculty and staff are not so sure. “It’s not the program, it’s the man—trust me,” whispers one Doxey admirer in the teacher’s lounge. For his part, Doxey hopes to return on a part-time basis. “I need to,” he says. “There are kids in here in 7th grade, and they’re damaged so much,” he adds, almost wincing.
For now, as he prepares for retired life and rests his heart (after suffering a heart attack at 52, he had an arterial blockage removed last October), Doxey is contemplating converting his ideas into a consulting practice. At any rate, he plans to continue being deeply involved in the community, whether it be through Olive Peirce, his church, or the local 4-H. “There’s a lot of good kids out there!” he says, still wondrous after all these years. “I want to reinforce what a lot of strong families believe. And it’s hard—here I am in a public school system, like David and Goliath, man. I don’t have a chance.” Then he grins, not needing to point out that David won.