To Mr. Williams, with love, from the class of 1967

    The "talking stone" passed from hand to hand during the Rose Circle mentoring workshop Tuesday as each adult offered up a brief accounting of their activities.

    "I'm in," each said in conclusion, sending the smooth stone on to the next person.

    Later, as I mulled over what I'd seen at Ashland's Hidden Springs Wellness Center — where local people were training to become youth mentors — a flurry of powerful childhood memories sprang to mind.

    For better or worse, I will forever belong to the Linda Vista Elementary School class of 1967.

    Those were tumultuous times. Sexual and social revolutions were raging. A war was raging, too. Siblings and cousins were graduating from high school and getting shipped off to Vietnam.

    My class was full of "gifted" but troubled kids. Smart students full of angst and attitude. Needless to say, not a good combo. Picture the troubled miscreants in "To Sir With Love" — prior to Sidney Poitier's civilizing influence.

    It's not that we were truly evil. But the class ahead of us already had garnered the "Best and Brightest" reputation. So this particular collection of upper-middle-class white kids trod another path to scholastic fame.

    It is rumored we gave the fourth-grade teacher a nervous breakdown. The fifth-grade teacher retired rather than take us on.

    A tough German lady was transferred in to whip us into shape. She met with minimal success.

    Orchestrated fights on the library lawn were common occurrences. Combatants were picked at random. Bets were placed on the winner. It was all very gladiator.

    As we prepared to enter the sixth grade, our precocious mob entered the hormonal years.

    Anxious to embrace all that was cool and bitchin', my fellow tweens raided their parents' liquor closets and cigarette caches. Many also were having sex and doing drugs.

    It was all very overwhelming to this girl who loved to watch the Monkees and play softball — and would rather have licked a lizard's eyeball than French kiss a boy.

    I distinctly remember puking many mornings from the stress, afraid my "Lord of the Flies" pals would discover my soft tender underbelly and turn on me.

    The teachers said I was leadership material and urged me to set a good example. But the only success this class prez ever had in steering my cohorts from a path of self destruction was convincing them to make Jell-O, instead of mayhem, after we sneaked into the school cafeteria one Saturday afternoon.

    Then they hired a new teacher. Tall, thin and dressed in black, Mr. Williams bore an uncanny resemblance to a clean-shaven Abe Lincoln.

    We figured he'd been hired to intimidate us into submission, and imagined he would beat the bad boys and shake some shame into the unruly girls. We dug in and prepared for battle. We'd win this war, too. No doubt.

    But there were no beatings. Nor any fire-and-brimstone lectures. Instead, like Poitier's character, our unlikely teacher challenged our minds, engaged our spirits and molded our characters.

    He also kept us exhausted. The President's Council on Physical Fitness had received a face lift from President Kennedy. It was all the rage. Mr. Williams decided we'd put on Olympic Games and invite other schools to compete. Mr. Williams' friend, Peggy Fleming, came to present our medals. It was totally cool.

    Mr. Williams ended classroom boredom by presenting an advanced curriculum. Science became relevant when he brought in a jar containing a black, tar-filled lung. It had belonged to Mr. Williams' late father-in-law, a chain smoker. The boys went gaga. The girls mostly gagged.

    Mr. Williams multi-tasked the teachable moment. After exploring bronchioles and alveoli, he asked whether anyone wanted to take a vow never to smoke. Ever.

    There was no pressure. Nor any extra credit. But if we offered our word of honor, he'd hold us to it.

    My entire family smoked at that time. But I never did — because of a handshake agreement I made with a gentle man with piercing black eyes when I was 12 years old.

    Mr. Williams earned my lifelong respect because he gave respect. And he taught a class of crazy kids how to respect themselves and others. Mentoring doesn't get any better than that.

    Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail

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