Having taught at West High for 34 years, social studies teacher Gary Neuzil has had thousands of students. Some of which have gone on to be teachers themselves. An even smaller number, just four, have gone on to teach at West.
Neuzil remembers them all clearly: art teacher Christian Aanestad, science teacher Maureen Head, science teacher Jeff Conner, and family consumer science teacher Jana Warning. Four other teachers including world languages teacher Larissa Gasperetti, social studies teacher Jessica Mehegan, science teacher Marshall Moellers and science teacher Kody Pudil also went to West, but we’re not Neuzil’s students.
Head was a student at West from 1996-2000. She was involved in multiple sports including volleyball, basketball and track and field.
“Her success in West High Athletics carried over in the classroom. She stood out in the crowd, because of her height, but also her enthusiasm towards learning,” Neuzil said.
English teacher Kerri Barnhouse never had Head as a student, but she remembers going to all of her games regardless.
“I didn’t have a husband or any kids at that point so I would go to all of the sports events. I followed her in basketball, volleyball, her throwing in track and field,” Barnhouse said. “I would even go to the away games.”
Gasperetti, however, was one of Barnhouse’s students from 1998-2002. She was a very focused and involved student, as she was involved in choir and show choir, tennis and other clubs. Her sophomore year she went on a trip to Europe with Barnhouse, and her junior year she went on the Spain trip with Rosenthal.
“I have little doubt these opportunities led me to my career,” Gasperetti said. “I have many wonderful memories here and I think this is due in part to my active involvement. I sincerely hope all current students will leave with positive experiences; the key is choosing to be a member of our community and the many offerings including but not limited to academics and sports. We depend on student input and involvement to make our school even better.”
As a student, Gasperetti and Barnhouse were quite close.
“Barnhouse was, and still is, positive, energetic, intentional and eager to share her knowledge,” Gasperetti said.
Barnhouse describes Gasperetti as “The kindest, sweetest person.” She still has Gasperetti’s senior photo on her wall.
After high school, Gasperetti ended up marrying a former West High grad so her connection to the school is even stronger.
“I am married to another West High School grad. We did not date in high school, but we have fun memories of our times in choir and other shared events. He won’t appreciate this too much but Andrew even fainted on me during a choir concert,” Gasperetti said. “While I seem to recall it was from my exceptional musical talent, he apparently had the stomach flu and his mom still made him perform. No matter how you replay it, which we did many times the day after the concert in choir class, he was head over heels.”
Conner was another one of Barnhouse’s students. He went to West from 2001 to 2005. He was a student that liked to learn but cared little about completing his work. As a result, his GPA was always pretty low, and he even failed a few trimesters of different classes. Barnhouse’s class was one of the ones he failed.
“I failed [Barnhouse’s] class because I plagiarized a paper. And I totally deserved to fail her class. She was kind about it,” Conner said. “She was sad about the choice that I made and sad about the fact that I was not going to get credit for the class, but I continued to read the plays even though I knew I was going to fail.”
Part of the reason he made that choice was due to the fairly new internet at that time. There was no Turnitin.com at that point, so students assumed they could get away with using essays they had found online.
“I think the English teachers at West had figured out that something was going on. And so they kept this particular set of papers for a long time,” Conner said.
The teachers went through each of the papers slowly, to find places that did not sound like the students had written it and googled the phrases to find the plagiarized essays.
“They gave any of us who did that zeros, which as I said, we deserved,” Conner said. “There were a lot of people doing that because it was a new thing and high schoolers are … creative in circumventing the rules. I, to this day, am embarrassed that that happened.”
“I think he realized what kind of student he wanted to be in high school, after that,” Barnhouse said.
However, the paper is not what she remembers most about Conner. Conner and his twin sister started the COLORS club at West High when they were sophomores.
“He and his twin sister started the COLORS club, so the club is as old as however many years it has been since their sophomore year of high school,” Barnhouse said. “His sister would always drag him around everywhere, he wanted to be there of course, but she’d go around saying ‘Come here bud,’ ‘Let’s go, bud’ and this was before he was my student so I asked him if he wanted to be called bud and he told me his whole family did.”
Aside from Barnhouse, Conner also had Neuzil, science teacher Matt Harding, math teacher James Kirpes, world languages teacher Dave Rosenthal and science teacher Michelle Wikner.
“I remember [Neuzil] as being somebody who is extremely warm and kind and funny. And he’s someone you just look forward to seeing every day,” Conner said. “Sometimes he can get a bit off-topic, but it’s because he’s really passionate about what he’s talking about and I admired that about him … There’s a reason why I think he’s the teacher that has been here the longest.”
Neuzil remembers Conner from when he was in his class as well.
“Conner was a quiet student, but he was always learning. I think from him, it was more of his intensity to want to learn,” Neuzil said.
Neuzil also had Warning as a student from 2002-2006. He recalls Warning as an enthusiastic person.
“She was always pleasant and always upbeat,” Neuzil said.
“Neuzil always had props and different doll heads and whatever which his room looks very very similar even after renovations,” Warning said.
At school, Warning participated in bowling for three years. Her decision to become a teacher was influenced by her FCS teacher.
Like many of the teachers who went to West, Warning sometimes forgets she’s not still a student.
“Some days I’ll walk down the hall and be like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to class, I’m teaching class,’” Warning said.
All of the former students and teachers are elated to be working at West. While Neuzil did not necessarily expect any of the four to become teachers, he is happy that they ultimately decided to choose this path.
“As a teacher, one of the proudest things you get is when you see your students become educators. And it was just thrilling to see that, that’s an extraordinary thing,” Neuzil said. “It’s so exciting when you have your students become teachers, it’s like passing the baton.”
Neuzil loves having his previous students in the building, especially because he has seen their leadership grow from when they were students.
“If you think of those four,” Neuzil said. “They’re all leaders in our building. And that’s what I like, is seeing them now. Knowing that each of them are quality educators, knowing that their students learn from them. So I respect them as much as I respect all my colleagues, but it’s just a little bit special when they’re kind of your babies.”
This dynamic of past students becoming their teachers’ colleagues is not that rare of a phenomenon, especially for those who stay in the district. When Neuzil first started teaching at West, some of his old teachers from South East Junior High and City High became his coworkers.
“Probably the closest [teacher] was my teacher at City High,” Neuzil said. “And that was Kay Rogers and she passed this past year. But it was thrilling to have her as my teacher, and then working on curriculum with her, as she continued teaching Psychology at City High and I was teaching it here.”
All of the teachers enjoy working with their colleagues and encourage their students to go into teaching as well.
“We always need good teachers, and if any students are feeling like they enjoy learning the same way that I did, I hope that they would consider teaching as a profession,” Conner said. “Even though it’s not always advertised as having the highest pay or the best respect from your clientele, it’s a really good job and I hope we’ll get more West High alumni that choose to come back and be teachers.”
This story was originally published on West Side Story on February 14, 2020.