When I was a little girl in Bakersfield, CA, the ouija board predicted my future as a ballerina. My Victorian mother, however, thought a “nice girl” should have a secure career in nursing or teaching. No way!

Throughout my teens, I rose up the ladder of the Santa Maria Union HighSchool Breeze, looking forward to writing competitions at Fresno State College, and in its founding years edited the Junior Statesmen of America’s newspaper; but it was on the Stanford Daily that I truly discovered journalism, including writing headlines like “Spontaneous Rally Planned.”  It was on the Daily that I formed life-long friends, with whom I still share “remember when …..”

Between June 1953 when I graduated from Stanford and June 1962 when I returned from three years in the Foreign Service Staff as a code clerk in Bonn and in Paris, I held at least eight jobs. Although I didn’t know it then, working on the San Jose Mercury-News Central Coast desk, covering Los Gatos, Saratoga, and Campbell city councils, planning commissions, and school boards was excellent experience for teaching: I encouraged my English and  journalism students to become interested magazine and newspaper readers and to ask challenging questions. In order to meet the paper’s mid-night deadline, I had to call-in my stories to my demanding editor via the public phone booth.  Always on my mind was the NYTimes’ motto, “Get It First, But First Get It Right.”

The early 1960’s brought me luck. Employed by the State Bar of California’s public relations office in San Francisco, I had a wonderful boss who realized I was having trouble finding a  reporting job, so he suggested, “Ruby,why don’t you go back to college and get a teaching credential; it will be money in the bank for you; you can work here part-time.”

Then I read about the National Defense Education Act, which loaned funds to entering teachers; I borrowed $3,000 so I did not have to work while student teaching; in addition, the NDEA offered a pay-back of only 50% if I taught for 5 years and at 4% interest. The NDEA also wanted to improve teaching. People like me who never majored in English (some of my friends joked that journalism was the drivers ed of English,a remark I never considered entirely humorous!!) benefitted from month-long seminars; I increased my confidence at the the University of Nevada, studying literature and writing fiction and poetry, with Walter Van Tilburg Clark, whose encouraging remarks I appreciated and have tried to model.

Most important of all, I met Dr. Dorothy Petitt, my San Francisco State University curriculum and instruction advisor and adolescent literature instructor. Dr.Petitt introduced me to the English profession. The planning chair person of a state English conference in San Diego, Dr.Petitt hired me to help her organize the conference. And how gracious she was to pay my way to San

Diego to be her “girl Friday.” In a matter of months, I had met the leaders of the state’s  English profession, and with those introductions, I soon launched my English career at Ygnacio Valley High School, Concord.  What fun to work with 800 students and  seven English teachers, under the direction of Ken Lane, and our principal Dr. Ernest Wutzke, who inspired loyalty, whose door was always open, and whose end of the year note always made me feel a proud professional.

I attended the 20th reunion of the class of 1964, the first classto graduate from Ygnacio Valley High School. My eyes blinked away tears as I saw the pictures of students who had died in tragic

accidents; I remembered my classroom on November 23, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated and how in only several hours order was reinstated to our country with Lyndon B. Johnson as President. Occasionally I meet students who remind me of what fun they had studying “MacBeth” or doing imaginative writing assignments. Then a student will write telling how much my reading her essay to the class filled her with pride.

I figure I have taught almost 5,000 students in the half-century I have called myself “teacher.” Sometimes when I am traveling and a stranger asks my profession, I’ll say secretary; I guess I still cringe at the response,”I was never very good at grammar.” If only they really knew.

©Ruby Bernstein, 2013

Ruby Bernstein, BAWP ’74 and ’83, volunteers at Richmond High School, with Writer-Coach Connection; she is also a member of the City of Oakland’s Library Advisory Commission.

3 Responses to “I Never Wanted to be an English Teacher by Ruby Bernstein”

  1. Deborah Dashow Ruth Says:

    What a fascinating and engaging journey to and through a life of English teaching. Ruby so effectively elicits past times and places, she made me nostalgic even though I wasn’t there! I loved the NYTimes motto, “Get It First, But First Get It Right,” a lesson all but forgotten by too many journalists nowadays. For sure, Ruby would never forget it. What a rich life — and so richly conveyed. I hope many of her 5,000 former students will read and enjoy her piece.

  2. David Mills Says:

    Hi, Ruby:
    Interesting column here. I am doing a story on the changes that have occurred at Ygnacio Valley High over the past 40 years or so. If you’d be interested in being interviewed for the story, please email me at

  3. jane juska Says:

    You are not old enough to have lived so full a life except oh, now that I think of it…. I love this piece.

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