Mesa Musings: Sports Illustrated leads to best summer — in school

There's a price to be paid for sitting in the back of a high school algebra classroom and devouring issues of Sports Illustrated strategically hidden behind your textbook.

That price is called summer school.

And I paid it in 1960.

Because I read SI as a sophomore in a Costa Mesa High School algebra class in the spring of '60, I sat in an algebra class at Newport Harbor High School that June, July and August.

While my more disciplined classmates went to the beach that summer, or to Yosemite, or to see Aunt Agnes in Iowa, I was puzzling over polynomials on the campus of my high school's most hated rival.

There were only two high schools in Newport-Mesa then: Costa Mesa and Newport Harbor. Just one offered classes that summer.

Harbor High was an ancient, Gothic-looking structure towering over Newport Heights. I was certain it'd been there since the Middle Ages.

The classrooms, I discovered, were dank and moldy. I was used to prefab, tilt-up concrete structures that had recently been planted in a Costa Mesa pasture, surrounded by the ghostly remains of the Santa Ana Army Airbase.

The most notable feature of the campus was its impressive clock tower that to me suggested London's Big Ben or UC Berkeley's Campanile. You could see the danged thing halfway to Catalina. Sadly, the most distinctive structure on the Mesa campus was a "futuristic '50s dome" covering the snack bar.

We Mesa students knew we were Newport's stepsister. Our principal, and most of our teachers, had taught at Newport and were exiled to the high school astride the bean fields.

I rode my bike 6 1/2 miles roundtrip from our home in northeast Costa Mesa to the Harbor High campus weekday mornings during the summer of '60.

I signed up for an 8 a.m. algebra class taught by Newport Harbor legend Webster Jones. Jones was a popular and respected math teacher for decades on that campus though, truthfully, I had no idea who he was because I hailed from Dogpatch.

I also signed up for Bob Wentz's public speaking course. Wentz was equally renowned, and was then in the autumn of a sterling career. He taught speech and drama for decades at Newport.

I didn't know Wentz either, but I got to know both teachers that summer, and they changed my life.

Math was never my strong suit, so I slogged my way through Jones' algebra lessons — sans Sports Illustrated — and squeaked by with a passing grade. Jones gave me his best professional effort, though he knew he was working with a dim bulb.

I, on the other hand, loved Wentz's speech class. He was breezy, cheery, devilish and exceptionally supportive. He coaxed the best out of us.

Some students in class clearly would have chosen a root canal over the ordeal of delivering a public speech. Several were reduced to quivering masses of humanity that summer as they stood before their peers.

One particular young woman, I recall, was so painfully shy that she came across as a whispering shadow hiding behind the podium. Wentz patiently worked his magic, however, and by the end of the summer she had blossomed.

Others of us in the class were unduly fulsome.

One Harbor High football player, who later starred at Orange Coast College and USC, had a stentorian voice that sounded as if it'd once reverberated over Sinai. He had the best public speaking voice I've ever heard, and his classroom presentations were spellbinding.

Our first assignment, I remember, was a dramatic reading. I selected a passage from Leon Uris' 1958 bestseller, "Exodus," a book I'd recently read. I took "dramatic license" with my presentation, and my delivery was dripping with affectation. Wentz gently dialed me back, and taught me self-control. It was my introduction to the prudent notion of "less is more."

I offer a belated but heartfelt thank you to Bob and Web for caring.

School that summer was better than the beach!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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