The 50 tally marks tattooed in neat sets of five on Jerry Borchelt’s wrist celebrate each year of his long, rewarding teaching career.
He needs to update that particular tattoo.
Last month he began his 51st year in the classroom, the first two spent on an Indian reservation in Nebraska as part of the National Teacher Corps. But since September 1970, Borchelt has taught at Hanna Boys Center, a teen residential treatment facility in Sonoma Valley.
At 73, he’s past standard retirement age, and few would have questioned him packing up his math books and scheduling extra time on the golf course. Despite some health issues, Borchelt reasoned the Catholic high school could still benefit from his teaching experience and dedication to troubled boys.
When he responded to a newspaper advertisement and interviewed for the job back when Richard Nixon was in his first term as president and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” made its TV debut, Borchelt was asked how long he thought he might stay.
“As long as I’m having a positive effect on these kids,” he answered. Forty-nine years later, he remains true to his word. “As far as I’m concerned, I still am.”
Borchelt, who holds two master’s degrees, hopes he can reach his golden anniversary at the campus. He’s still happy working at the fully-accredited Archbishop Hanna High School on the picturesque 170-acre campus north of Sonoma, teaching algebra and geometry and helping change lives for the better.
“I’m kind of an anomaly, I guess,” he said. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”
He’s aware that skilled, dedicated teachers can motivate students and help turn lives around. “I know I’ve done that. That’s why I keep doing it. It’s going to be hard not to do it.”
Long regarded for its success helping at-risk boys overcome childhood adversity, Hanna Boys Center recently has been beleaguered with allegations of sexual abuse scandals that last month brought its former clinical director a 21-year prison term.
The facility, in operation since 1945, also was threatened with state licensing revocation and shutdown, but was granted a reprieve after making physical and operational changes.
Borchelt acknowledges the incidents have impacted the center, but also knows its staff won’t stop helping the students, about 80 boys this year.
“It’s bad for the center and it’s kind of thrown a dark cloud over my career, so to speak,” he said. “But I come here in the morning and this is what makes me happy. It’s the kids that matter. To heck with the rest. There are so many good people here. This is a great place, and that’s why I come (to work).”
Borchelt focuses on algebraic equations and geometric properties, guiding students in grades eight to 12, many of whom are struggling academically when they arrive at the center.
Class sizes are small, about eight to 10 students, and Borchelt runs a structured program. That doesn’t mean the longtime educator is rigid or reserved.
“I have a lot of energy. Sometimes I’m on a table. When I want to point out something, I get on the counter,” he said. “I’m pretty animated. I try. I haven’t changed a lot.”
He long ago recognized not to take things personally when every boy doesn’t excel in his studies. “You can’t exist here like that. You can’t beat yourself up when boys don’t get it.”