After dabbling in several careers over 20 years -- youth ministry, farming, radio and a job at his uncle Bob Hodel's restaurant -- nothing ever felt like a true life calling for Randy Hamm until one day when he happened upon a career guide called "What Color is Your Parachute?"
"I like communication, I love young people and their energy," Hamm said. "It started to sound like a high school teacher."
And bada bing, he had a winner.
Now, after 24 years teaching English at East Bakersfield High (and 21 years heading the journalism program), Hamm has retired. He and his wife, Norma, recently moved to Bella Vista, Ark., to be closer to their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. One more year might have meant a small bump in his retirement income, but when Hamm's mother died last year it freed him up from feeling tied to this part of the country, he said. Although his son is based in Los Angeles, he travels a lot.
"When I looked at the fact that my grandchildren were growing up without me, I decided I could solve that problem," he said. "It seemed right; it just felt like the time."
Beyond his impact as an English teacher, Hamm leaves behind a legacy of strong student journalism as the adviser for 21 years of the student newspaper, The Kernal. Duties for the first-time adviser were massive: teaching different styles of writing from news and features to sports and reviews; photography and page design; sales; and leadership.
A former student met Hamm at Dagny's Coffee Co. downtown before he left for Arkansas to say goodbye and thank him for his hard work. Alison Johnson, The Kernal editor-in-chief for the 2008-09 school year, said her experience on the newspaper is what got her a job, fresh out of high school, at Lightspeed Systems in Bakersfield five years ago. The Kernal taught her the importance of deadlines which has been essential to her career success so far. She believes she has Hamm to thank for that.
"He really believed in the power of student journalism and trusted students enough to really make something of value," Johnson said of her teacher.
"It's a rare experience to have a teacher so committed to excellence. What he brought to The Kernal -- excellent education, excellent training -- to get to be a part of that and reap the benefits is really cool."
Although East High's journalism program was canceled for the 2013-14 school year, it continued on as a club, though without Hamm. This fall, things are looking brighter for The Kernal, but whoever takes over Hamm's role as adviser has big shoes to fill.
"It's hard to imagine the newspaper without him," Johnson said.
Before leaving Bakersfield in late June, Hamm sat down with The Californian to talk about retirement, grandchildren and 21 years advising student journalists.
How did you end up becoming the journalism teacher at East High?
My third year, the existing journalism teacher had finished four years, and she was burned out and my department chair came to me and said, "Would you like to teach journalism?" At that time, going into my third year of teaching, I thought, "I want to be the last guy they lay off. That sounds like an important job that nobody else will want. I'll take it." And then I found out about the learning curve. It's a big job.
How did you learn what you needed to become a good journalism teacher?
A huge part of the learning curve is the law and ethics portion, because student journalists in California have the same set of rights that you do as an adult, professional journalist. The law in California is California Education Code 48907, and it specifies that it is the students' job to determine what goes in their paper. That's really hard for a lot of grown-ups to accept.
So you're helping students with the skills ... and trying to help them ... keep themselves out of trouble and take on that mantle of responsibility, to know that if they screw up, it's on them. (Running a newspaper) is grown-up stuff at a high school. I think it's the single most real thing that high school students get to do -- produce a publication.
What will you miss the most about teaching?
I'll miss the interaction with the kids and watching them shine and the lights come on. This last year, there was no (journalism) class, and I had taught the class for 21 years, so I already had the sadness of not being engaged with people like Alison (Johnson), who just took to the task like a fish to water. I think the journalism teaching was the most rewarding part of my career, and for me, it was always about remembering that it's their paper, not my paper, and watching them take the bull by the horns and make it work.
When was it hardest to remember that it was their paper and not yours?
The times that were hardest to remember were the times when the kids were a little less -- what's the word? Feisty. When they were pliant and "What should we do? What are we supposed to do?" When they weren't very aggressive about their story choices. That was the hardest time to remember that it was their paper, because I knew that there were all kinds of issues they should be wading into with both feet. When they were gung-ho, then it was easy.
In 2005, some of your student journalists sued after then-principal John Gibson and the Kern High School District censored articles about gay students. What was that like from your perspective?
It was a dance, because I was a) an employee of the Kern High School District and an employee of East High, and the principal who was being sued was my boss, so I have a certain set of responsibilities to be a loyal employee; and b) I was charged with advising a group of students who felt that their constitutional right to free speech had been violated, and these were students I had taught those rights to, and they were standing up on their hind legs and exercising those rights and fighting for those rights, and so on the other hand I was very loyal to them, and very supportive and proud of what they were doing.
At no point along the way was the lawsuit my idea. My role with the students was to make sure they kept asking the right questions. Questions like, "If we do this, what will be the outcome? Are we willing to pay the price if this is what we do? If we publish this, what are likely responses?" So then publicly, I basically had to support both sides. That was tricky.
I really do see this controversy as two groups of people both trying to do good, and not being able to both have their way at the same time. The principal honestly wanted to protect student safety, and my students honestly wanted to increase the store of tolerance in the school, and those are both good things. But the principal believed that any discussion of homosexuality would be so volatile it would cause people to get hurt ... and the students believed that the best way to approach the problem is to discuss it, not sweep it under the rug.
What were newspaper production nights like for The Kernal?
I'll tell you (a) little story: There was a gal named Melanie who was our ... features editor. ... She had this way of saying "I can't! I just can't make these stories fit on this page! I just can't do this!" I made it a project of telling her that "can't" could no longer be in her vocabulary, and the alternative would be to say "I need help finding the solution." By the time she graduated, she was no longer saying "can't." In newspaper design, there's always an answer. There's a solution to every problem.
So it was crazy. It was a fun time, and it was stressful. The kids had already been to a whole day of school, and I'd already had a whole day of teaching. And for three days, we added another day on top of that.
With former students now in fields like journalism, public relations, education and more, how does it feel to know you had some hand in all their lives?
I had a poster in my room that says, "Will it matter that I was?" And I really do feel like, especially with journalism students ... that (The Kernal) was challenging enough for them that my nudging them to take on hard things made a difference in their lives. They found out things about themselves that they didn't know. I think they raised expectations for themselves. And that feels like it was worthwhile. I'm sure my English students, some of them were benefited as well, but journalism was really the most rewarding part of my career. And the most terrifying. And the most exhausting. That's kind of how it is, isn't it?