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Laguna Beach


Dave Dixon, Thurston’s primo language and cultural educator is preparing to say adios, au revoir, zai jian

By MAGGI HENRIKSON

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

A young girl brought her friend around the corner of the building and said, “It’s in here, come on.”  Her friend looked around furtively. “Don’t worry, he’s old school, but he’s nice,” the girl reassured her. She stepped inside the doorway and pointed straight ahead. Her friend laughed when she saw it and exclaimed, “It really is like a museum piece!”

Dave Dixon overheard the whole thing and chuckled, “Yes, it’s a chalkboard. I’m still 20th century!”

And there he is, Señor Dixon personified, pants covered in his usual chalk dust. 

He puts most kids immediately at ease with his breezy nature and Southern charm, so the two girls felt quite comfortable. And, like even the new young teachers at Thurston, they wanted to go over and touch the actual chalkboard. When Dixon retires this year after 25 years of service to the kids of Laguna Beach’s middle school, so too will the chalkboard. Alas, it will be replaced with that ubiquitous staple of the modern classroom, the White Board.

“I really like chalkboards,” Dixon says with his gracious smile, and then recounts the bemused cashier at Staples, where he buys his chalk. “I came up to the register with a box of chalk, and the guy looked at me like I was crazy. ‘I teach’,’ I told him. He just said, ‘You use a chalkboard?’”

Languages teacher Dave Dixon holds the Key to Thurston

Now, granted, chalk is not the only tool in Dixon’s educational arsenal. When it comes to 21st century technology, his classroom is a veritable treasure trove of gadgets. There are 15 iPads loaded with games and quizzes for Dixon’s Mandarin Chinese, Español, and English (second language) students. Those iPads can connect with the Google TV’s (three of them), so everyone is able to share content and keep up at the same pace.

But another of Dixon’s tried-and-true classroom techniques is decidedly old school. All the desks face forward. Seems like a simple concept, right? Part of the diabolical nature of Dixon’s charm is that he subtly teaches kids how to pay attention, be respectful, and listen to the teacher. That is true genius in the middle school years.

What will all the chalk do without Señor Dixon?

The classroom atmosphere reflects Dixon’s positive attitude in general.  He has Chinese dragon kites hanging on one side, and the Hispanic Wall of Fame on the other. The chalkboard, usually covered with Chinese characters, also props up the Riesgo board – that favorite game like Jeopardy, where student competitors represent different Spanish-speaking countries. And under the side tables are the sodas, juice, and snacks for afterschool pick-me-ups, and regular parties.

“I have been so happy here,” he says. “The district has been really supportive of my ideas, and different programs. And the parents! They send their kids ready to learn here. It makes teaching ten times easier.”

The adults they will become

No doubt, the middle school years are fraught with doubt, peer pressure, and other anxieties. These are the most impressionable years to grasp the concepts of self-respect and kindness toward others, including adults and society as a whole.

Dave Dixon may understand that more than most parents, having been around this age group for so long. He gives sagely advice to the parents on “Back to School” night by emphasizing the influence parents have in the choice of their children’s friends. “I tell them, ‘Encourage your children to choose friends who value succeeding and learning. They will be better off if they make friends with others who value their family relationships.’”

Thurston’s principal, Jenny Salberg, has been witness to the many accomplishments of this fine teacher. “Dave Dixon is able to teach the love of language, appreciation of culture, and provide an outstanding example for students to be global citizens,” she said. “He teaches by example the dignity of humanity, and he’s an inspiration to us all.”

A date with destiny

Dixon started teaching 40 years ago, when he was a proper Southern gentleman in Virginia and North Carolina. He departed briefly for six years to become a flight attendant in order to satisfy some of his wanderlust. That was when he fell in love with California. A two-week airline training session was unexpectedly postponed and Dixon found himself grounded in Santa Monica for the duration.

When he felt the tug on his heartstrings at the return of school buses in autumn, he knew it was time to get back into teaching. He signed on to teach in Manhattan Beach before joining Thurston in 1989. 

He’s always been a talented Spanish teacher, but along the way he learned German, a little Japanese and French, and continues the herculean task of conquering Mandarin Chinese.

“Now I look like I got off the Ark,” he jokes. Then, as now, his enthusiasm knows no bounds. 

He started the “Language Wheel” program, where students immersed in Spanish, French, German, and Japanese for six-week sessions each, including language instruction, cultural investigation, and Dixon’s famous field trips. 

“I loved going to Olvera Street,” former student Erik Henrikson said. “I loved Medieval Times!” Nick Henrikson said. Those two favorite trips are still part of the program today, even though the wheel has been changed.

For the last several years, Dixon’s “other half” has been Randi Beckley. Beckley teaches French and Linguistics, while Dixon teaches Mandarin and Spanish. Every nine weeks they switch kids over to each other’s class. Beckley expressed what so many colleagues feel about Dave Dixon’s retirement, “I’m just so sad for me, and for the kids. But I’m also happy for him.” 

This week he was presented the “Key to Thurston” in honor of his stewardship and tenure at the school.

It’s been a fun ride for 25 years and the future looks bright too

Why leave? You’d never know it by his boyish looks, but Dixon is practically ancient! Kidding. “I am!” he insists. “I’m probably the oldest in the district.” At 63, that seems unlikely, but it’s the timing that’s right for Dixon to begin a new chapter.

Chapter two

“I still have the energy, and I want to do something different, and enjoyable,” he says. “My retired friends who are the happiest are the ones who re-invent themselves.” He’s following their cue, and putting a plan in place that ties together all the things he has enjoyed in his career: language, culture, learning, and travel.

Next up – back to being a student. He’ll be attending the International Guide Academy this summer, hoping to launch his own tourism travel service in the next year. His focus is on international travel, most likely to start with a guided tour to Spain, and also travelling by train as a specialty. “I like helping people have fun outside of their every day life,” he said.

This man has been an unbelievably patient, considerate, and devoted educator with a footprint huge in the sands of Laguna Beach. Filling them again will definitely require different zapatos because Dave Dixon is one of a kind.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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