September 1, 2008

San Lorenzo High School’s Billings Won’t Quit

By Gideon Rubin

SAN LORENZO -- Millard Billings was born to teach.

"Since I was a little kid," he said. "I never veered from that."

Billings' drive to educate others carried him from the age of Elvis to the era of Britney Spears.

But at age 63, three years removed from a legendary Arroyo High School of San Lorenzo teaching career that spanned five decades and eight principals, Billings still does what he can to remain active in the field.

He spent the first week of class subbing for a guidance counselor -- his fourth such stint since his retirement -- and is preparing to teach adult literacy.

"It's really fun to help out and make a contribution. It's like a win-win situation for everybody," Billings said. "I can't believe how much I enjoy it."

Billings' association with Arroyo began in 1959, when he was a high school freshman, a few years after his family moved to the East Bay from Akron, Ohio.

He graduated in 1963 and returned to his alma matter in 1969 after completing his undergraduate degree in history with a minor in French at California State University, Chico.

Billings taught classes in American government, sociology, economics, and family-life education until the early 1990s, when he became a guidance counselor. He completed a required two-year Master's degree in psychology at University of La Verne's Fremont campus while teaching at Arroyo in 1992.

His move from the classroom to the guidance counselor's office followed a period in the 1980s when he was selected the school's Teacher of the Year three straight times. He was also honored by his teacher's union colleagues for outstanding achievement.

"It was sort of an eye-opener for me," Billings said of the transition. "I had no idea what I was getting into."

Billings found himself getting into the business of taking care of student needs that varied from college placement to helping students cope with personal problems.

"As a teacher you worried about an algebra test score. As a counselor, you're worried about their well-being overall."

His work as a counselor opened a window to occurrences on campus he was unaware of. There were problem teachers and students experiencing personal problems more serious than he imagined.

"I had no idea what was going on," he said. "Behind all those smiling faces some of those kids were really troubled." Billings said he leaned heavily on the Arroyo community during a personal crisis. In 1997, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

"The school was incredibly supportive," he said. "Employees would take turns taking days off to drive me when I was sick."

Billings recalls an almost exclusively white campus with students wearing slicked-back hair and driving hot rods that resembled a set from the movie "Grease" when he first enrolled in 1959.

His nostalgia, however, is tempered by an understanding that the good old days were in many ways not so good.

He's embraced the demographic, cultural and economic changes that have dramatically changed the school's landscape. "All the changes were for the better," he said. "When I was first hired (in 1969), drugs were so prevalent in the school. It's much different now. I can't believe how nice the kids are. It's been amazing to see the evolution." Colleagues say he remains in tune with today's student.

"His philosophy has always been that all kids could succeed," former Arroyo principal Dick Lloyd said. "He always felt that you can never give up on a kid."

Gideon Rubin can be reached at 510-293-2469 or [email protected]

Originally published by Gideon Rubin, The Daily Review.

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