By ARNI DAROY
Whether she is on her way to an ASB assembly, the ABBY Awards or another WASC meeting, Ms. Jeanne Jelnick (English Dept.) is a busy woman. Despite constantly running around campus, Jelnick is also the kind of teacher that talks to students, whether they have her as a teacher or not, during her snack and lunch about anything from their English essays to their own personal problems. In my four years at UHS, Ms. Jelnick has been a constant presence in my life both as an educator and a ‘mom,’ and I am not the only one. Ask any UHS student from the past 33 years, and I can guarantee a handful would say the same, which makes her pending leave to teach at Portola High School bittersweet.
Jelnick first stepped foot on campus in the fall of 1983, a 21-year-old field observer from UCI teaching a lesson on Figurative Language in a Simon and Garfunkel song. She said, “It was Corey Rutter’s Creative Writing class in Room 219. I was a senior in college, and it was kind of like a ‘Are you sure you want to be a teacher?’ experience.”
Despite knowing she wanted to be a teacher at a young age, Jelnick did not always pursue a career in education. She initially dropped out of college to work in theater. She said, “I got sidetracked in theater for a while, and I didn’t know if I was gonna come back to what was always ‘my vision.’ [Education] is where I was and am supposed to be, but I wasn’t sure so I did a little experimenting.” She eventually made the decision to leave theater and finish her undergraduate and graduate degrees at UCI.
She then proceeded to student teach sophomore and freshman English at Woodbridge High School for one semester before she was hired in the fall of 1984 to teach at University High School, and she’s “been here ever since.” In her 33 years at UHS, Jelnick has taught essentially every English course offered. She said, “I taught Pop-Rock Lit, Honors British Lit – which I did for years and years –, American Lit, Advanced Comp, Creative Writing, English 1, 2, 3 and 4, AP Literature and Literacy Lab.”
When I asked her to elaborate on Pop-Rock Lit, she recalls being too young when she taught it saying, “That was a struggle bus. I was too young to appreciate Pop-Rock Lit or do a good job.” If she were to teach that class now, she knows it would be different. “In the last 15 to 20 years, I’ve felt all the latitude and freedom I’ve ever wanted to help my kids.”
Jelnick’s impact on UHS extends beyond the classroom as well, particularly with the Pink Ribbon Club, whose first chapter was created in UHS. She had two students whose mother was battling breast cancer in 2002 and after doing some research on support organizations, noticed there was no support group for teens. Jelnick said, “To me, I didn’t make sense. Logically, the odds of teenagers dealing with their mothers having breast cancer are greater than anything because that’s when their mother would be of age. Women are pre-menopausal, menopausal or slightly postmenopausal when their children are in high school.” Jelnick herself lost both her maternal grandmother and mother to breast cancer. The Pink Ribbon Club Foundation today is now an international non-profit organization.
For all that Jelnick has contributed to UHS, she is most thankful for what the school has given her. “Truthfully, I grew up at Uni. I started when I was 21, and I had multiple broken hearts, had three kids and buried two parents during my time here. I figured out how to be a professional woman, found my voice as a writer and became a sort of political activist for education here.” She says that no matter what your profession, her most important advice to anyone is to eagerly seek out mentors.
She said, “You have to surround yourself with people who will mentor you. I had wonderful mentors early on to show me how to do things like work full time and raise three kids. How do you bury your father and come back to teach Othello on Monday morning? How does that work? I had people all around me who showed me how.”
She said the biggest mistake people make is thinking they no longer need a mentor. She said, “Don’t ever think ‘Oh I’m done. I’ve been doing this for five years, I don’t need mentors.’” She cited Mr. Mike Gerakos (Activities Director) as one of the most important mentors in her career despite the fact that she started working with him only three years ago at 53 years old. She said, “[Gerakos] had something new to offer me, something to help me realize my capacity for service and love. That’s something I had not fully appreciated before working with him.”
She says, however, that her most important mentors “have been, from the beginning, my students. They are my most important teachers, my most important guides. I’m in education for them so they give me the most important information about the work I do and about who I am as a person.” She disagrees with the cliche that ‘Students keep you young,’ saying that “they really wear you out,” but what she loves about students is that “they aren’t jaded or cynical or bitter or tired, and to spend my days around that kind of positive energy, and hopefulness, and promise and tomorrow gives me an optimism and energy.”
When asked about her moving to Portola and what traditions she intends to bring with her from UHS, she said, “I want the kids at Portola to create their own sense of community and self, but the one thing I would love to just magically bottle up and give is the student spirit [at UHS] which is unequaled. It’s unparalleled anywhere, but other than that, Portola’s traditions have to be theirs. That’s why Uni’s culture is as amazing as it is; it’s created by the students.”
When asked what she wants from her career now as she moves on to Portola, Jelnick said, “Honestly, I think right now, I want it to distract me. I think if I left Uni now, to be completely done, it would crush me.” She visibly chokes up at this idea before comparing her leaving UHS to “infidelity.” She said, “some of my colleagues have an attitude of ‘how can you betray,’ and I think it’s sort of true. I’ve been saying lately to myself that [moving to Portola] is my tryst in my old age; it’s my exciting affair to distract me from the fact that my real love story [with UHS] is coming to an end.”