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Viva la Shagin!

I was going to post the next piece of my book, and perhaps I will later today, but I wanted to take a moment to give a shout out to my newest Facebook friend and the finest civics teacher any high school student has ever had – the honorable Lee Shagin of Southern California.

I try to avoid real people’s names in this blog, but Mr. Shagin is something of a celebrity already. Prior to the 2000 election, he created quite a stir when he was cited in a nationally syndicated column by humorist Dave Barry, who was describing an online poll conducted for PBS that allowed users to identify the most important issues to be addressed in the presidential campaign.

I quote Mr. Barry at length:

As of Nov. 2, a total of 12,000 viewers had voted, and I am shocked to report that only ONE PERSON — identified by PBS as Lee Shagin of Woodland Hills, Calif. — named low-flow toilets. I am referring to these useless toilets that Congress foisted on the public by the Useless Toilet Foisting Act of 1992; the toilets you have to flush at least three times to eliminate the evidence from the scene of the crime. This issue came in dead last in a field of 41, behind such snore-o-matic issues as “health care,” “foreign policy,” “leadership,” and “infrastructure/energy.”

I refuse to believe that this poll truly reflects the opinions of you, the voters. I have never once heard a voter say, “You know an issue I am very excited about? Infrastructure/energy!” But every day millions of voters say “Yuck!” upon lifting the commode lid and encountering a previous user’s inadequately flushed foistings.

I let out a huge whoop of delight when I read this column, and not only because I, too, hate low-flow toilets. It was because the subversive genius of Lee Shagin had finally entered the mainstream. My family moved to Utah right after I graduated from high school. That sort of split my family in half – three of six children had grown up in California, while the younger three went to high school in Salt Lake City. Those three sometimes feel left out when the older half of the family starts talking, because every now and then, we just sit around swapping Lee Shagin stories.

So I shared the Dave Barry column with my older brother and sister, both of whom had also had the privilege of learning at the feet of the master. Indeed, it was my oldest sister who, long ago, had come home from her first day of school in her senior year of high school and couldn’t stop talking about her Government teacher, who was the funniest man she’d ever met.

She told the story of how he had drawn a line on the chalkboard from left to right to illustrate the political spectrum. On that line, he labeled four points as follows: radical, liberal, conservative, and reactionary. He gave a brief description of each term, and then he made it personal.

“Some people think it’s better for teachers to try to appear politically neutral, but I disagree,” Mr. Shagin said. “I think you have a right to know where I stand. Back in college, I was somewhere over here.” He then drew a line about two feet to the left of radical. “But, you know, they say you get more conservative as you grow older, and I suppose that’s true. So, having mellowed with age, I’d say I’m somewhere around here.” He then drew another line that was only about a foot and a half to the left of radical. He explained that the difference was that he wouldn’t now actively participate in a demonstration where people were burning draft cards, but he’d probably be willing to go and pick up some donuts for everybody.

Politically, I’m probably a severe disappointment to Mr. Shagin, as I consider myself a disaffected Republican, even as the GOP begins its forty years in the wilderness. But Mr. Shagin made it very clear that he refused to pick his friends according to where they stood on the political spectrum, and he always treated each of his students with kindness and respect. He might be pleased to know that both Foodleking and I registered as Democrats our first time out in an attempt both to please Mr. Shagin and to tick off our parents. But once my parents made it clear they didn’t care much, Shagin’s tacit approval couldn’t prevent my fundamentally evil nature from reasserting itself. Same with Foodleking. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t paying attention. Indeed, Foodleking appropriated one of Mr. Shagin’s witticisms as his senior quote in his high school yearbook:

“If it moves, bet on it. If it doesn’t move, eat it.”

I’ve stolen a bunch of Mr. Shagin’s stories over the years. He was once deriding people who dismissed Communism out of hand because it provides no incentive to do a good job. “Fine,” Mr. Shagin conceded. “In a Communist system, there’s no incentive to do a good job. But in a Capitalist system, there’s no incentive to do a good job, either.” He then recounted his time working as a clerk in a shoe store and having a lady come in and complain that the pair of shoes she was trying to buy was too tight on her feet, and that the leather needed to be broken in a little bit before the shoes were wearable.

“No problem,” Mr. Shagin said. “We’ve got a machine in back that’ll fix that for you.” He then took the shoes into the storeroom and tossed them on top of the filing cabinet. He came back out and said “It’ll be a few minutes.” He then went on and tended to other customers, ignoring the lady as she waited patiently. After about ten minutes, the lady asked if her shoes were ready. “Let me check,” Mr. Shagin said, wandering back into the storeroom to for appearance’s sake. Sure enough, the shoes were still just sitting there. He came back and said “Just a little while longer.” Finally, he went and got the shoes, and handed them to the lady, who thanked him profusely and told him the shoes were much, much better.

Or there was the time that Mr. Shagin arrived at a grocery store and found that someone had taken two parking spaces for a single car. This displeased Shagin, who decided to squeeze his Volkswagen Beetle into what remained of the second space and sit in his car, stewing in his own anger, just waiting for the inconsiderate person to show themselves and get what was coming to them. When the culprit finally showed up, it was a young woman, who, according to Mr. Shagin, “then did the worst thing she could possibly do.” Apparently, that meant that she sincerely, profusely apologized, leaving Mr. Shagin disarmed and defeated, with no choice but to accept her apology.

I’ve used that story repeatedly in teaching Sunday School classes, which may not be an application Mr. Shagin had anticipated. I certainly don’t tell it as well as Mr. Shagin did. Just reading these cold words on a screen does not do justice to the brilliant comic delivery that marked every one of Mr. Shagin’s lectures. You were laughing so hard that sometimes you didn’t notice how much you were learning.

And you learned a lot.

I’ve spent a lot of time in and around government over the years, and so much of what I have encountered has been informed by what Mr. Shagin taught me lo those many years ago. I’ve been critical on this blog of the public education system, because I think it encourages mediocrity. It’s only in the rarest of instances that a teacher has both the capacity and the commitment to make a real impact on the life and education of their students. Mr. Shagin was and is that kind of teacher, and I hope he can take satisfaction in knowing that his influence has had a profound effect that matters a whole lot more than the diploma does.

In fact, I’m not sure if I even know where my diploma is…

Changes to Chapter 5.1
Chapter 5.2

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  1. First encountered Mr. S as an elementary school substitute teacher at AEWright way back in the late 60’sz he was everyone’s favorite substitute teacher, and would join us on the playground during recess. Could shoot hoops from half court while sitting down. We kids could barely hit the rim while standing beneath it. Went on to have him as a middle school teacher and at Agoura High School. He moved over to CHS well after my time in the Las Virgenes district, but remains one of my all time favorite instructors. Thank you for the honorarium posting.