Retiring instructor loses his sight, but not his passion for teaching

June 22, 2010

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Issaquah High School graduates Amy Saad (left) and Christina Joo visit David Mickelsen’s classroom to give him a basket full of his favorite snack — chocolate. The girls said they bought every type of chocolate Hershey’s makes and told him not to eat it in one sitting. By Chantelle Lusebrink

In 43 years of teaching, more than 6,400 students have walked through David Mickelsen’s classroom door at Issaquah High School.

What he hopes they’ve come away with are lessons not only in U.S. History and European studies, but a lesson in confidence, he said before retiring June 17.

Confidence and heart

From the front of the classroom, Mickelsen, 67, has given some of the most animated lectures in Issaquah’s history.

Casting himself in character roles adopted from the history books, like a medieval peasant and a 1920s-era husband against women’s suffrage, he kept students entertained and made history unforgettable and fun, said Mary Lou Priestley-Fine, an assistant in his classroom.

“I had him for all three years at Issaquah, whether as a student or a teacher’s aide and it was an honor to have him,” said Amy Saad, a 2010 graduate. “He definitely changed my life for the better.”

But as the years passed and students came and went, the stage on which he performed has grown darker.

Mickelsen was diagnosed in 1971 with optic nerve atrophy, a degenerative disease that deteriorates the optic nerve and has left him legally blind.

Though he can still distinguish bright colors, patterns and large objects, Mickelsen walks with the help of a cane and gives textbook lessons from memory.

A teaching career begins

Mickelsen graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1961.

Though his father was a teacher at Queen Anne High School, “I didn’t really enjoy school, but my mom said I was going to college,” he said. “I didn’t really know I was going to be a teacher until I student taught.”

During a student teaching assignment in Seattle, Mickelsen said he worked extensively with one young boy who had special needs and it gave him a soft spot for children who don’t learn like others.

“Just the idea that he had a hard time understanding got me curious,” he said. “I told myself there must be more than one way to teach this boy.”

After graduating from Central Washington University in 1967, he was hired with the Issaquah School District at Cougar Mountain Elementary School. He transferred to Maywood Junior High School in 1968 then Issaquah Junior High School in 1971.

In 1972, he transferred to Issaquah High and has been there since. In 38 years, he taught special education, math, language arts, social studies, drama, music, world cultures and history.

Famous student

At Issaquah High, he said he fondly remembers teaching his two favorite subjects — history and drama.

One student he said he remembers as having a lot of star power was Issaquah graduate Brian Yorkey, who in the past year has won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his production “Next to Normal.”

“During rehearsals, he’d drive me crazy, because he never stopped talking. But he was wonderful to work with,” Mickelsen said. “Once he came onstage, you knew the show was going to be a hit. He was that good.”

Yorkey has a different view of that time.

“Drama was my first period class, first semester, freshman year, and if I hadn’t been able to do plays with Mr. Mickelsen every morning at 7:30, I don’t know if I would have been able to wake up in the morning, much less survive that first year,” Yorkey wrote in an e-mail. “He made IHS drama a fun, challenging, accepting place, and he showed us that drama was a pursuit for serious work and real fun. And I’ve made my life out of that.”

Different ways to teach, learn

Mickelsen loved drama so much he joined Renton’s Valley Community Players and was a member of their board for nearly 19 years.

Unique and memorable about his history classes was the option to take any exam orally, students said.

“I actually took all of my tests orally except one, my final,” said Christina Joo, a 2010 Issaquah graduate. “I just think it helps people when they can talk it through.”

“Because of his disability, he has learned to listen to students like no other teacher I know,” said physics teacher Tom Haff, a longtime friend and fishing buddy.

“He listens to the kids very carefully,” Haff said. “He works well with the kids, he respects them and for those that are struggling, he finds a way to help them find what they need to be successful.”

But what he will forever be known for, Priestly-Fine said, is expecting just a little more from students and getting results.

“I’m a firm believer in the phrase, ‘Success breeds success,’” he said. “You can’t sell kids short. If you turn up the scales a little, they’ll do fine.”

Students don’t forget that, Priestly-Fine said.

A new stage to conquer

After 43 years, though, it was time to retire, he said. In the years to come, he said he’ll work through his wife Patty’s large “honey-do list” and spend time with their two children and granddaughter.

They also have trips planned to Hawaii and perhaps, Mariners spring training, but that’s only if the team plays better. If not, he’ll convince Patty to take a trip to the Smithsonian.

“I’m going to treat every day like a Saturday,” he said. “Just take it one day at a time and enjoy it.”

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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