Arts & Entertainment: Local author, educator writes of teaching at alternative school

  • TROUBLED STUDENTS. Darrell Hamlin shares memories of teaching at region 5 Learning Center, a joint venture between Tacoma Public Schools and Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration. The title, "North Star Platoon," refers to nickname his students adopted on trips to Mount Rainier National Park.

Many teachers would be afraid to be in the same classroom with some of the students Darrell Hamlin has taught. Few would likely want to take a dozen of them on a field trip to Mount Rainier. Hamlin tells many of his memorable stories from his teaching career in his new book, “North Star Platoon.”

Hamlin graduated from Wilson High School. His career as an educator began in 1982, when he became an assistant track coach at Wilson. For the next three years, he worked on his degree at Central Washington University, where he majored in history and political science.

Soon Hamlin was teaching at an alternative school on Tacoma Avenue called Region 5 Learning Center. It was a joint venture between Tacoma Public Schools and Washington State Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration.

The students he taught had been involved in a range of criminal activity: drug dealing, burglary, prostitution.

One of the more notable students was Clark, from Spanaway. When he arrives, Hamlin and the other educators are well aware of his situation. Hamlin does not reveal it at first, only hinting that Clark did something notorious that generated much coverage in newspapers and television newscasts.

Hamlin is at the entrance meeting with Clark, his father and grandmother. Hamlin describes him as a normal teenage boy. After some time in his class, Hamlin is impressed with his intelligence. Clark is academically beyond the other students, more knowledgeable than Hamlin on some topics.

Excerpts from articles in The News Tribune about Hamlin’s students appear at several points. One, written by John Gillie in the April 30, 1993 issue, explains Clark’s crime.

A secretary at the school, not known to other teachers, had nominated Clark for a youth of the year award. We learn from Gillie’s article about the nomination that Clark had admitted to killing his mother with an axe. His first trial ended in a mistrial in January, after the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of conviction. His second trial was to start that June.

Hamlin took students on field trips, often to Mount Rainier National Parks, other times to a small cabin he owned on a lake. Students had to exhibit good behavior to be eligible for these outings. Many of the Tacoma kids had never been to the great outdoors within view of their urban settings. The book’s title refers to a nickname for his platoon of young adventurers.

Many students were gang members, affiliated with various sets of the Crips and Bloods. Sometimes rival gang members clashed, but other times they could collaborate to achieve something positive. One example occurred on an outing when a girl wandered onto a narrow ledge and was too scared to walk back. Two boys, a Crip and a Blood, volunteered to go up and get her down.

Hamlin certainly became street smart during his years teaching at Region 5. His wife used to drive a red Pontiac Sunbird. Two months in a row, on the 23rd, the driver’s side window was shot out. He told another staff member about paying the insurance deductible. A Hilltop Crip student who overheard his remark pulled him aside and informed him that after the monthly gang meeting on the 23rd, Crips would roam the area attacking anything red. Hamlin wisely began leaving the car in his backyard every 23rd day of the month.

His students make appearances, sometimes just in his memories but other times in person. He is pleased to run into some as adults, happily married with children of their own. Many others end up in prison or dead.

Hamlin consistently points out the good qualities of most of the students and notes that some have grown up in very dysfunctional families. He is an advocate for their right to get an education and a shot at a good life in the future.

Hamlin clearly feels the switch from junior highs to middle schools was a mistake. He notes that many of his students got involved in criminal activity at age 14 or 15, during ninth grade. He thinks these kids are too young for the high school environment and belong with seventh and eighth-graders. He presses this point a few times, but could have put more emphasis on it.

The book is for sale at Pacific Northwest Shop in Proctor District.

Reviewed by John Larson


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