Joseph Magill Harlan passed away where he wanted to, Spring Garden, on May 31, 2022. He was born in Ross, California, on 3/15/1941. Within a couple of years his family had moved to Potter Valley, Mendocino Co. and then to Ukiah. He spent his entire youth running the hills fishing, hunting, hiking, camping. Not unlike his entire life. He was hired in 1967 by Plumas Unified and spent the next 30yrs teaching at Quincy Jr/Sr High School. Throughout those years he taught Spanish, World History and team-taught with Bob Hiss with the yearbook. He also sandwiched in a number of other classes like beginning woodshop. He also saw the writing on the wall and brought in the first computer in 1980 when Apple started giving away computers to schools. With that lowly beginning he managed to create a desktop publishing class with tons of help from box tops, grants and parents. He retired in 1998.
The response from the community during his illness and his passing, the sharing of memories about my Dad once again reminded me that when your parent is a teacher they are never solely yours. They don’t just belong to your family and close friends but to the community.
To this community he was Señor Frito long after the reason for the nickname was forgotten. He was the man who worked the field gate at home football games, waited for your parents to pick you up after a junior high dance. He was the guy you lifted weights with every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 3:30 to 5 in the tiny weight room to get into the 300 club. His classroom was covered in posters and he changed them regularly.
He was the man who taught them to shout “juro lealtad” in gringo accents (I know the verb is not quite right) every morning (I cannot imagine the trouble this might get him in today!).
He may have taught them to “throw a real punch”, or how to con an adult (a final in his critical thinking class once upon a time — it backfired on him pretty spectacularly). He was the guy who disrupted your donut run streak, giving up his apple fritter just for the delight of freaking you out. He was one half of a couple who took you in, gave you a room if you needed it, or just a space to be. He taught numerous kids over the years how to conjugate a Spanish verb, how to drill a hole, how to write logo, and where Ukraine was on the map.
He taught me all those things too. But he also taught me some things about teaching. He taught me that it was about the community. That you show up when you can, say yes as often as it makes sense if it helps the students. That the day isn’t over when the final bell rings, that sports and drama and music are important and you should be there to celebrate with the students when they perform. And you do what you can to make sure those things happen. That you keep the administration in the loop, but more importantly he taught me how to work around a roadblock and that sometimes you didn’t ask – if it was for the kids. He taught me to appreciate vacation – that it was for restoration, and that included summer. That it filled you up to go back. My dad loved his job, and many kids loved him as a teacher, but it wasn’t his life. And on that note — the more personal, but it is also about the teacher he was.
My dad taught me to sit in silence, to watch the world. To watch the flycatchers at dusk on the river, the fish rising, and the shadows on a granite wall. He taught me to look for the unexpected. As I sat on Margarita Flat coming to terms with saying goodbye not just to him, but to my childhood home an otter came gliding up the creek. The unexpected. Or the mountain lion across the field off the deck of the hunting ranch. The snake raiding the bird nest.
He taught me to listen to the birds, the wind in the trees, the slap of a beaver tail on Grass Lake, the crash of the waves.
He taught me you show love in the little things, the not obvious.
The gift of Poppins the Penguin 20 years after the small stuffed penguin stopped taking the trip to Hartman Bar. Poppins was a staple on our trips after my dad chased my rolling backpack down a steep hill before it plunged in the middle fork of the Feather River – Poppins marked the way and we got lucky. So for 15 years Poppins made the trip.
The small “treasures” that were brought home for my mom’s yard long after she no longer needed rusted wheels or gears.
In the memories that made us laugh even when they still gently pissed my mom off (she laughs too).
In the traditions that are ours. I have a lifetime of those.
But this was the man the community had for their 6 years at their school, and this past month reminded me he wasn’t just mine. That community has surrounded my mom and I with love and support. And those memories that we love.
No services are planned. If you wish, please donate to a favorite charity, do an act of kindness, plant a vegetable, say the pledge of allegiance in Spanish one last time for the guy.