Peggy Nemeth, Riverdale High School
English teacher supported students starting Gay Straight Alliance
She’s a runner, a coach, an adviser to the school Gay Straight Alliance, a believer in her students and a rapper.
Peggy Nemeth, an English teacher at Riverdale High School in Fresno County, doesn’t do freestyle rap. “I have a terrible memory. I tell most of my kids they’re smarter than me. I memorize rap songs just so I can entertain them. I reward them with it.”She’s often already famous to her new students, thanks to their siblings. “They come into orientation and say, ‘You rap.’” But it stays in the classroom. There might be videos somewhere, but she’s never seen them. “I have terrible stage fright,” she admitted. “I will fall apart if I’m filmed. I think I get so freaked out about it they don’t want to ruin it by posting videos online.”
In the beginning …
At first, she had a hard time getting a teaching job out of college. Just as she had gotten her foot in the door teaching part-time, she and her husband moved to Washington for his journalism job, and she became pregnant.
“I gave up teaching for 15 years to raise my kids,” Nemeth said. “I knew teaching would be such a commitment for me.”
As her kids were a little older, she worked as a para-educator for seven years, before going back to school to brush up her teaching credential. Nemeth is in her 10th year of working at Riverdale.
Students as family
Nemeth teaches ninth-grade English and AVID, a four-year program to help students get into college through study skills, organization and Socratic seminars. “AVID is a hard thing to explain,” she said. “These kids have special challenges getting into a high-level college but are very motivated.” Those challenges include having single parents, migrant parents or being the first generation to go to college.
“I have them every year for a class period and they work on study skills in a prescribed manner. … Every year is different as we get closer and closer to college. I keep them organized, teach them how to communicate and all the skills they need for college.”
Her students are like family. “It’s the same kids for four years. They can come in and complain and it doesn’t leave the room. It’s a real, personalized support system.”
Starting the GSA
In 2011, a student asked her to be the adviser for a Gay Straight Alliance at Riverdale. “I can’t believe we’ve had it that long. It’s one of the most popular clubs at school. Probably because we have the best parties.”
Jokes aside, Nemeth said, “We really do have a significant gay population at our school. Not all are openly gay, but they are openly gay when they graduate, and they have come back to thank the club for its existence.”
The student who asked to start the club was popular but not out at the time, and had been bullied for being perceived as gay.
“I think we need a club to provide a safe space for kids who think they’re bullied all the time,” Nemeth said. “They can empower each other, and teach the bullies how wrong they are.”
Of course, getting the GSA going was not easy. The student had to present the request to the Student Cabinet.
Nemeth said the vote was close, and a couple of members of the Student Cabinet were very against it. Nemeth said she was sad to hear that, but the club was approved.
Next, the club had to go to the school board, in a conservative-leaning community. “They approved it. I hope it was because they thought it was a good idea.”
The GSA became popular right away. “It’s a place you can come and talk about whatever you want to,” Nemeth said.
The art of letter writing
Her big project this year is pen pals. Over the last couple of years, Nemeth has collaborated with an English teacher in Seattle. In the past, students got to know each other through video and email and then did a project. The first year, they wrote a story about their partner in Seattle. “It turned out great, but it was an inch-and-a-half of stories I had to edit. It was brutal.”
This year, they are taking it old school with snail mail. “These kids never write letters. Maybe in elementary school, if a teacher makes them. But they never do it voluntarily.”
Having her students get to know another group is exciting, she said. “My students are very isolated where they live and attend school. It’s a pretty homogeneous group.”
About 80 percent of the Riverdale High School students are Hispanic, and have family members from Mexico. “It’s nice for the kids to meet students living in a big city as opposed to a rural community like ours, who come from different cultures. The climate is different in Seattle. They go on kayaks because they have water there. They go skiing. My students really enjoy getting to know their pen pals.”
Why become a teacher?
“I really felt like I could make a big difference with more people than I could doing anything else. If it’s not a huge difference, it’s still the best one.”
Speaking of making a difference, she reconnected on Facebook with her favorite teachers. “They both did the same thing that inspired me. Mainly, they treated their students like adults in training. They didn’t talk down to us. They weren’t condescending. They trusted us until they had a reason not to.”
Her sixth-grade teacher let students build forts if they got their work done, and started a gymnastics team, “to give us something to do on cold days in Alaska to burn off energy.”
Her 12th-grade English teacher introduced her to Monty Python. He also gave students things to think about, assignments to work on and then left the room.
“We thought it was so cool that he trusted us so that we wanted to do our work,” Nemeth said.
She tries to teach the way they did. “I’m not as good at it, but my students respond in the same way, so it must work.”
What are you most proud of as a teacher?
“I’m there for my students, for the long run. You do it because you love the job. When my students graduate and go off in the big world, they’re still not done growing up. They can still message me or contact me or send me an essay to edit. I’m not a crutch. I don’t want to keep them babies forever, but I’m still there like a parent.”
Going the distance
Nemeth, a runner, also is an assistant coach for cross country and track. “The red tape and paperwork falls on the coach. But you’re still a track coach and it’s still hard to get up at 4:30 in the morning.”
Her interest in running speeds up or slows down, but she will never quit until she can’t run anymore. “I’m currently in a running phase. The craziest thing I’ve done was 200-mile relays with a team.”
Plans for retirement?
Nemeth said retirement is a long way off, and she doesn’t have plans yet. She didn’t start teaching in California until she was nearly 40 years old.
Perhaps she’ll be taking care of pets. Nemeth is married with three grown kids, two grandkids and “more animals than I can count. I’ve had a perpetual kitten in my house for three years. I have one right now.” Not to mention the dogs. She and her husband end up rescuing animals, often abandoned at her school.
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