Jim Cartnal, the principal of La Cañada High School, committed when he became an educator to playing a key role in the stewardship of young people. A life of service is not typically measured in profound accomplishments but in the small and often obscure everyday magic that a teacher or principal brings to their school. As many in our city know, before he was named principal he was a well-regarded American history teacher at LCHS.
(By the way, while my wife, Kaitzer, is a member of the La Cañada school board, I am writing about Cartnal because I’ve been impressed by his work over the years. It has nothing to do with Kaitzer’s seat on the board.)
On a recent Saturday night, Cartnal was on campus as the administrator on duty for the LCHS Theatre Department’s presentation of “A Christmas Carol.” I met him in his office, and we quickly became engrossed in discussions on philosophy, history, historical inference and favorite books. His remarkable intellectual acuity was evident, and I was impressed by his ability to speak on matters from their root.
“What’s your philosophy on education?” I asked him.
“All students can learn,” Cartnal said. “Regardless of their starting point or their resistance, it’s the teachers’ job to find that point of contact in which to begin.”
He spoke of nourishing the souls of students, which I found enlightening because it’s not what a teacher knows that influences a student’s life but how much they care.
“That’s the hidden curriculum,” he said. “I teach with everything that I do. How I dress. How I speak. How I deal with challenges.”
He said a former student who was initially uncertain of what to wear for his first professional job interview paid him the best compliment he could receive when he said, “Mr. Cartnal, I just dressed like you.”
Cartnal attended Covina High School and played golf and basketball. He was also active in student government. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in American history at UC Irvine, with a minor in German studies. In his senior year, he studied at the University Göttingen in Germany. In 1991, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell and while working in a Coke bottling plant in Göttingen, he was the first American many East German workers met. He claims that when they heard he was from California but couldn’t surf and didn’t know any movie stars, they were quite disappointed.
After graduation, he worked at UCI’s study-abroad program. “I loved school and never left it. If there’s anything that defines my ethic, it’s that I want to give back,” he told me. Thus, becoming a teacher was a natural evolution for him.
He enrolled in a master’s program in American history, specializing in U.S. foreign relations. “I wanted to put down roots in a community, coach soccer and have a family,” he said. “I thought teaching high school instead of college would be a better fit.”
“What’s your favorite book?” I asked.
“‘Siddhartha,’” he said. Herman Hesse’s story of the emerging Buddha is a treatise of a journey toward enlightenment. “My role is to help [students] find a path which leads toward their enlightenment.”
He says a student’s journey is fraught with challenge. “Learning life skills are essential to navigating that path.
Students can change their circumstance by working and questioning. Work matters,” he said.
"[It’s about] questioning what they’ve been told so they’re square with it and can live with the truth of others, and, if not then empowering them to make their own understanding of the world, by not only answering questions but asking them as well,” he said.
Cartnal empowers students to believe they are capable of anything. His methodology is subliminal. A student’s transformation evolves to a point where they are surprised to realize their capacity for greatness.
We spoke for two hours, but he had promises to keep and left for the auditorium. I mused after our discussion that Cartnal is a man defined by a heightened moral compass. He is a remarkable individual who empowers students to envision a world far beyond themselves.