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City Lights: An unlikely spotlight for teacher

April 30, 2012|By Michael Miller

When I was a wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter in high school, I once interviewed a local teacher who had held her job for more than 30 years. At one point in our conversation, I asked if she had ever been recognized by the city — my assumption being that anyone who had served her school for so long must have a plaque or key of some kind.

She seemed pleasantly surprised by the question, but responded that no, the politicians hadn't come knocking. That's the story for most teachers, who, the occasional state award or newspaper article aside, leave most of their legacy in the memories of former students.

Right now, though, a man who taught for three decades in Huntington Beach has become a national celebrity of sorts — and it had nothing to do with winning a prize or having a school named after him.

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Rather, James Atteberry, a social studies teacher at Sowers Middle School during the 1970s, came to prominence after the Oregonian ran a story about one of his former students who apologized to him for a 39-year-old slight.

To summarize in brief: Larry Israelson, one of Atteberry's top students, asked to be transferred out of his class in 1973 due to rumors that Atteberry was gay and that the teacher's praise for Israelson was sexually motivated. The second part of the rumor was false, but the first was correct, although Atteberry, like many other gay teachers at the time, prudently stayed in the closet.

For decades, Israelson felt remorseful about his actions, and when he saw Atteberry's name in a 2009 Oregonian story, he contacted reporter Tom Hallman Jr. and asked to be connected to his former teacher, with whom he finally mended fences.

Hallman wrote a story about the apology, and then I got involved. Because the Oregonian piece had a Huntington Beach angle, I posted it on Facebook — and promptly got a comment from Merle Moshiri, a Surf City resident and environmental activist, who wrote that Atteberry had taught one of her children and that he was "a gentleman & a scholar."

Moshiri connected me to Dareen Yonts, Atteberry's principal back in the day, who emailed me a glowing account of his work in the classroom. Atteberry, she said, was a master of the Socratic Method and made himself available to students before and after class.

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