You’re alert, your eyes are darting from side to side, watching golden coins fly above your head. Your heart is pounding while your hand blurs across the paper as the words being spoken pass in an instant. This is a normal day in French, originally found in room A11, with walls draped in old French film posters, the air floating with the smell of coffee and the sound of clinking coins. This, to many, is home. It's the class you look forward to, and you never stay quiet in, which for the first time is a good thing. It's the class where you know the teacher cares about you and where you always have fun. For forty-three years, the French classroom has been the epicenter of attentive, engaged, and excited students, but as of next year, the posters will be taken down, the smell of coffee will slowly drift away, and the coins will be put away forever, as Doug Wortham hangs up his Boise State cap and walks across the Rowland Hall lawn one last time.
As current French students, we decided to ask Mr. Wortham some questions to shed light on his past and his possible future:
What was it like when you arrived at Rowland Hall, and how is it different from how things are now? (excluding the pandemic)
That could be hours, literally hours. I’ll give you one anecdote of how things have changed. When I arrived, I was a very conservative person who was not out of the closet yet, and I arrived at this fabulous school and on Friday afternoons the faculty at the end of the day or the end of the week was going to smoke cigarettes, cigars and drink scotch in the middle of the school. Now, I don’t smoke and didn’t drink at the time, so it came as a shock. This was in the heart of the school, and smoke was coming and going out of the Parlor. There’s laughter and some scotch on the table.
You’ve been at Rowland Hall for 43 years, and you’ve gotten to know the teachers, both old and new, so what are you going to miss the most? Something specific rather than a concept.
I’m here for the students. Because even when I was in junior high and I was deciding that I wanted to be a French teacher, which at that age is already very weird, I knew I was doing it for the students because young people are far more fun and easy to play off of than adults.
Rod: This doesn’t surprise me, Mr. Wortham has always told me that he’s here for the students, they are the ones that he focuses on, and they are what he’ll miss the most. Any time you have a question, you can walk into his classroom and you’ll see him correcting papers on his podium, the red pen swishing quickly across the page, finding all the missing accents.
Eli: As Rod said, it doesn’t surprise me either. In this same interview, he acknowledged that he had made very few friends with adults. Most of his relationships are built off of the students that he teaches. Laura Johnson, an English teacher at the school, recalled her first time in the school: “When I walked through the doors, the first thing that I saw was Wortham talking with a student in French! It was astounding to me because, at my high school, people didn’t take language classes seriously.”
With 43 years of experience, you’ve taught hundreds of students, what works with them? As you adapted to Rowland Hall, your teaching method had to have changed, so what insight can you give us into what works when teaching your students?
Right away I realized that what I was taught in college wasn’t going to work. I dropped the textbook because I realized that they were boring and the exercises were boring. After that, I just kept adding stuff in if I thought it would be fun. I was constantly thinking, “if I were a kid, what would I want, how would I avoid boredom? And how do I keep myself from getting bored?” I learned right away that the American student isn't automatically internally motivated; I have to do it. So I implemented activities like the coins, standing up and writing on the board, singing, and doing weird things.
Eli: People usually think that Wortham is strict and tough on students, which is true, but it is justified in the right way. He’s formulated his teaching style, and after you have just one class with him, that idea of him being a tough teacher fades away.
Rod: This is perhaps the biggest takeaway from this interview: “Students are not internally motivated, at least not the American student.” French is a prime example of a class where you are constantly on your toes, raising your hand to be called on and sometimes just shouting out the answer. This is a class where you may be asked to sing randomly, and you will, which is something I would never do in another class. This is a class where we will be asked to run down the hallways if he sees us lose focus for even a second. And about the textbook: one of the reasons the class is so fun is the lack of textbooks. Due to this, there is no particular order our lessons go in, and we don’t have to cover certain topics more than others. I think this was a great decision and should be adopted by other teachers.
Beca Damico: My favorite thing is his unconventional way of teaching. Every day, we would come to class and not know what to expect. He just doesn't teach normally. One time he said we all looked tired. He told us to take our shoes off, put them in the back of the room, move the tables, and open the windows. He then told us to throw the shoes out the window and run out to get them. You had to put them on backward and run back to the classroom. The first one to sit back down would win.
With all the assignments and quizzes your students get daily and how quickly you grade them, will grading assignments be something you miss?
Grading filled my life with things I had to do, and in the summer, if anything, I got a little bored. So I’d rather correct a paper that's connected to a human being than clean a bathroom at home or pull weeds. It's fun to watch the progress that students make.
How will you spend your time? After teaching for so long, what are your plans?
I haven’t allowed myself to think about it too much because my first goal was to finish as strongly as I can here and not let up until I’m done. But like everybody, some travel, maybe a language, maybe a part-time job, I just don’t know. It won't be anything wild like parachuting or anything; that scares the sh*t out of me.
What’s an experience at Rowland Hall that’s impacted you profoundly?
The school’s reaction to when Nick was so ill back in 2008 and almost died. The school was remarkable and allowed me time off. Everyone wrote nice notes; they gave me plenty of space to get it figured out. That was a moment where what Rowland Hall says it does and what it does were perfectly aligned. This isn’t always the case. You have high-level ideas of who you are, but to live up to them is hard.
If you could give one insight or one piece of advice to the new French teacher, what would it be? What would you like to have known going into this job?
I would tell them, just as I would tell any teacher, students don’t care too much about too many subjects or too many things except what's fun for them. They’ll learn almost anything if they think that you authentically want to be with them. If they think that you don't like them, it doesn't matter what you teach, they’re not going to learn it.
Did you ever think you would be at Rowland Hall this long? What kept you here?
As a teacher, I lived on the edge, I used swear words on occasion, I lost my temper on occasion, and in today's world that can get you fired. In those days, discipline, a strong teacher, was part of what people expected; these days, it’s the opposite. I never had a vision of when I would be done. It took me a long time to decide this would be the last year. Since Nick is at risk with the COVID virus, I had to be very careful this year and last. This means that until his second vaccination, I wasn't so sure about a lot of things. With the pandemic, I figured it was a good time to retire. Another reason I stayed so long was to provide insurance for Nick, which is important. This is something that wouldn't happen in Spain; you would get it if you were employed or not, not in the U.S. One of the two of us had to stay employed for him to have healthcare because medications are expensive.
Rod: The fact that he stayed at this job for so long makes me feel two completely different emotions. One is compassion and admiration for Mr. Wortham, for having stayed at Rowland Hall for forty-three years to pay for healthcare, and the other is anger, mostly aimed at our political system. While I am more than grateful for having had Mr. Wortham as my French teacher, healthcare should be available to everyone regardless of their employment status.
Eli: This surprised me for sure. He talked lots about how he loved his students and how he’s made true connections with them over the years, which is why I thought that he stayed here because of the students. I never would have guessed that it was for his husband. Yet again, he only has his students for 4 years (or less), but he has his husband for, most likely, the rest of his life.
The last question we asked was simple: What message do you have for your current students? A last piece of advice:
If you want your brain to be healthy, you have to keep learning new things. Don’t fade into the internet. Keep learning and reading.
Eli: The Borgenicht family has plenty of respect for Wortham, as he taught my father, uncle, brother, and now me. Every day that I see French on my schedule, there is a sense of euphoria that comes to me. The energy in the classroom among students and the teacher is incomparable to any other. Time always flies, as does the pace of the class. Since I am a runner, I would compare the pace of any French class to the final sprint to the finish line. It’s so close, and after lots of work put into the race, it finally ends, and a sense of happiness rushes over you.
Rod: In my second year at Rowland Hall, I made the transition to high school, and it was very difficult. I am a very social and talkative student, and most teachers didn’t like that, until I walked into French. All my social energy was translated into the language: speaking, writing, reading, or even singing. There is coin throwing for extra credit, which requires absolute presence in the discussion. There is attention to detail every time you write, down to the last accent. But most importantly, there is a space to talk, to make mistakes, because that’s what comes with learning a language. As I’ve described above, Monsieur Wortham has always made me feel welcome, and he’s always had my back, even outside of the classroom. His support during my initial high school years is something I am very grateful for. There is never a dull moment, never a slow day. Like Mr. Wortham says, “Everyone has to be weird here.” That sentence perfectly encapsulates my two years in French.
As a final note, this is a video we made starring former and current students as well as faculty and staff, as a thank you to Mr. Wortham for everything he’s done: