After 27 years, Rod Meuchel still looks forward to helping young students make good choices in life.
That's why last Friday, during the annual teachers' ice cream party for the last day of school, the Hamilton High School guidance counselor was still in his office giving career advice to a student.
Meuchel is retiring this year, after a long career in the Hamilton School District. He never lost his passion for the job.
"I got to this point where I really like what I do," he said. "Sunday evenings, I get anxious. Fridays are nice, but I love coming into work and I really look forward to it. If I didn't retire, I could keep doing this. But I'm really looking forward to retirement. One of my students, during a fire drill a few weeks ago, asked me if I was retiring. And that was when it hit me. I told him ‘You know, I've been in school for 53 years.' And the kid thought for a moment and said, ‘Wow, you must be a slow learner.' And I just laughed."
Meuchel said that being able to connect with students of high-school age, even though he grows older every year, is a major bonus of the job.
"I've always felt that a counselor has to be not young, but young enough at heart to build relationships," he said. "Because I know that separation can happen. A cog of that is the parents of the generation of the kids you are working with. A tremendous amount of feedback and advice are coming from that family unit. You can't be in conflict with them or you won't be able to build relationships. I would say in the last five or six years, if there's something missing, it's that crack in the generations for me. I feel a gap starting there, so it's a little bit easier for me to be gone. My intern this past year, who has been hired to take my position, I can already see the difference. Technology is playing a greater role, and I never got into that. Heck, I think I just started emailing here two years ago. If I had a strength, it was building relationships."
Meuchel is joining five other longtime Hamilton teachers who are calling it a career as the school year comes to a close: guidance counselor Scott Southwick, algebra/calculus teacher Leonard Shephard, global studies/sociology teacher Mary Kay Jacobson, construction trades teacher John Mikesell and middle school/elementary music teacher Celeste Pogachar.
Meuchel said it is bittersweet to finally be looking at his last week inside a school.
"I feel a little remorse," he said. "Five girls stopped by today to wish me happy retirement. As much as some of us complain about stuff, golly, there's a great bunch of kids that far exceeds any of the negatives. There's just some neat things that are happening. I don't know if I regret the decision, but I'm going to miss some of the kids."
Meuchel said that he often gets feedback from his former students about how one moment or piece of advice changed their lives.
"One of them I remember, this student, we got to talking in a personal setting," he said. "We got to talking about how low or bummed he felt about how the way things were going in high school. I asked him, ‘Don't you ever wish you could just be the hero?' And his eyes lit up and he said ‘Yeah, gee, that would be awesome.' And I said, ‘Yeah, you would get the girl and everybody would pat you on the back. And the next day they would forget you.' And he looked bummed again. And I said ‘Well, that's reality. You can't live in that wish world.'
"So I told him if you don't like the way things are, you have to change them. And I ran into him a few weeks ago, and he had remembered that. He said that made all the difference in the world. He said ‘My grades got better, I became a better athlete, because I made things better, and I didn't wait for things to happen.' So those things are rewarding."
If there's one thing Meuchel wants people to remember him for, it's his belief that good problem-solving skills can help in every facet of life.
"I'm a firm believer that if you teach problem-solving steps, it will help all of us," he said. "You can apply it to any situation, whether it's family, career, financial, social, spiritual, health. Every major facet of your life can be enhanced by good problem-solving skills, and healthy decision-making skills. That'll show up on a board every time I walk into a classroom. The kids will give me a bad time, because I put it on the board when they were in eighth grade and by the time they're seniors they go, ‘Oh man, Mr. Meuchel's going to talk about problem solving.' But I believe in it."
Meuchel also fondly recalls some of the practical jokes he traded with his students, such as the time a group of girls filled his car with cornstalks. Meuchel conspired to have a police officer confront the girls with five glasses of water, so he could get their fingerprints.
"And the police officer told them they were going to be in big trouble, and that they better talk to me," Meuchel recalled with a grin. "And I walked into the room, and they were white as ghosts. And I said, ‘Girls, do you remember my car? Well ... Gotcha!' "
In retirement, Meuchel is hoping to spend time on the golf course with his wife and fixing up an old Model-T truck.
He said the kids that he will remember most are the ones who might not have gone on to a post-secondary education without a little extra guidance.
"You build relationships with a lot of kids, you really do, whether you want to admit it or not," he said. "And that relationship becomes almost the high point of your day at times. You walk into a classroom, and make eye contact with a kid, and for whatever the reason there's something there. And they know it, you know it, that this student has some importance to you, and there's something there. You get unsolicited hugs, and knuckles. It's unique to this job."
Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.