When Paul Messerle was a 14-year-old high school freshman, he was bullied for being gay.
"I wasn't even out to myself at the time, let alone to my family, friends or teachers, so I had no support there," Messerle recalled. "I didn't even know what being gay really meant, but I knew deep down that I was different from my peers."
As a result, he wore a heavy suit of emotional armor that weighed him down daily.
"I tried to be invisible, and I hated passing periods for fear of what I might hear," he said. "I was afraid, and you cannot learn when you are afraid."
The course of his life changed the following year when his school hired a new teacher – Bill Baldwin – for English, art history and drama.
"He saved my life," Messerle remembered. "Already garnering a reputation on campus for being a fantastic educator, it was his infectious wit and wicked sense of humor that everyone loved."
Baldwin cracked Messerle's emotional armor, and inspired him to get on stage where he put his method of wearing masks to some good.
"In art history, he showed me my life reflected in the lives of artists from throughout the ages, and ultimately, he gave me to myself," Messerle said. "He taught me the sincere joy of what it meant to live an authentic life and to celebrate being unique."
Messerle's next teaching influence was Dr. Carol Roemer of Long Beach City College, a professor of computer graphic arts and art history. In her courses, Messerle explored the dichotomy of both digital art and ancient civilizations.
"That experience eventually rearranged me and contributed to my own personal history," Messerle said.
The influence of those great teachers solidified his desire to make a difference in young lives, leading to his position as an art teacher at San Diego's Rancho Bernardo High School for the past two decades.
He has won several honors, including the 2015 Poway Unified School District Teacher of the Year and Rancho Bernardo High School Teacher of the Year. Most recently, Messerle was named the 2016 San Diego County Teacher of the Year, and he is now a finalist as the 2016 California State Teacher of the Year.
"Being designated as . . . a finalist for the State of California, I have already had the good fortune to be in the company of educators that are all journeying on this path of collaboration in their own unique ways, and I am honored to be in their company," Messerle said.
In the classroom, "I have the tremendous joy at seeing creative potential and profound authenticity walk through my classroom door every day in my students."
He describes his classroom as "an alchemist's studio" where students take the raw material of their lives and turn it into gold.
"I want to provide them with learning experiences that instill confidence, place them on a pathway towards success, and eventually celebrate in their encounters with greatness," Messerle said.
As a co-adviser for his school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance for the past five years, Messerle has witnessed students coming out of the closet much earlier, shedding their armor and stepping into their brilliance.
"Still, there are students at risk, and those now most in need of our protection from being harmed, or harming themselves, is our transgender population," Messerle said. "They have always been here, but they have been hiding, invisible and afraid. And you cannot learn when you are afraid."
He believes the greatest challenge educators face is to ensure that every student matters.