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Remarkable Mr. A is going away

• 'Once-in-a-lifetime' P.E. teacher retires after 34 years of sweat, cheers

It's a small victory. But life is about small victories. And on this sun-splashed Tuesday morning as on the thousands of other mornings over 34 years 'Mr. A' is about celebrating a small victory.

'You hear that, class?' Jim Anstine says, his arm resting on the shoulder of a second-grader at Southeast Portland's Glencoe Elementary School. 'Todd got a PR. What's that?'

He pauses, waiting for the boy's physical education class to shout with him: 'Personal record!'

Anstine lets Todd explain how he had just jumped rope 53 times in 60 seconds nine more than he had ever done before.

Todd smiles. Anstine beams É and looks around for the next small victory.

Anstine is 57 now and getting slightly paunchy around the middle. He walks a bit stiffly because his back is bothering him.

But until his official retirement in a couple of weeks, Anstine the name no one uses because everyone just calls him Mr. A will do what he seemingly was born to do: Teach kids. Encourage kids. Nurture kids.

Anstine has been a physical education teacher for those 34 years, 21 of them at Glencoe, in the Mount Tabor neighborhood. But he's been much more than that. He's at school every morning at 8 to get ready for his 40-minute before-school program for kids who need a place to go. On most afternoons, he's around until 4 or 5, running his 'jump rope club' or basketball or volleyball or track programs for the kids. On weekends, there are games or meets. And he's run many of the programs, for years, for no extra pay.

'He is a truly remarkable man,' says Sylvia Linington, a city recreation coordinator who has worked with Anstine on neighborhood recreation programs. 'His commitment is just unwavering.'

'This man has made just such a difference in these children's lives,' says Sonja Meadows-Cameron, mother of a Glencoe student, who's helped organize a special retirement party for Anstine on Saturday afternoon at Mount Tabor Park.

'It only takes one really, really good teacher to affect a child's life. And you just know that Mr. A is one of those teachers,' she says.

Anstine seems slightly embarrassed by the retirement party plans and the praise. But he understands the importance of mentors in children's lives, he says.

His father died when he was 9, and he began spending time at the YMCA in Southeast Portland, where a few adults gave a fatherless preteen the attention he needed. Without those friendships, he says, 'I might be in jail someplace.'

By the time he was 13, Anstine was teaching aquatics at the Southeast Y. By his junior year at Portland State University, he figured he would make a career out of what he loved: teaching.

After stints teaching in Sandy, at the International School in Bangkok, Thailand, and in Portland at Alameda Elementary and Beaumont Middle schools, Anstine moved to Glencoe in 1982. He's been there since even as budget cuts have led many elementary schools to end their physical education programs.

'You could rally people so fast to retain Mr. A because he was an integral part of the quality of the school,' says Lynne Saxton, mother of a former Glencoe student.

He gets involved

Much of the praise of Anstine whom one parent describes as 'kind of a fit Santa Claus' centers on how he connects with children, athletic or not, from well-off or less well-off families.

He tries to know the name of each of the 500 or so students at Glencoe and seems mostly to succeed at it. And he has a comment or two for every one of them.

'Pearl, you're getting better at that,' Mr. A says to a second-grader as he watches her work on a jump rope move. 'That's much smoother.'

'Even though he has several hundred children going through his gym room every year, he really picks up on each child's strength,' Meadows-Cameron says.

And each child's needs and challenges, parents say.

'He involves himself in their lives and kept track of them,' Saxton says. 'And É that's the piece of teaching that's really important. It's important what happens in the classroom, but it's also important that you know that this kid's going through some problems at home, that he may not be successfully engaged after school É so let's just rope him in and get him in the jump rope club, or get him running cross country, or get him playing basketball at night.'

Anstine, a divorced father of two grown children, figures that a good teacher should have 'a genuine interest' in students' lives.

Beyond addressing them by name, he says, 'I try to have a personal interest in something that they do.' He's attended various students' swim meets or gymnastic meets or other events 'when I could find the time and I felt that that kid needed it for our relationship,' he says, quickly adding that 'other teachers here do the same thing.'

'You just do things to help cement those relationships,' he says.

The results: students constantly clamoring for Mr. A's attention and approval 'He's the best gym teacher ever,' says third-grader Deanna Prodoehl and former students who come back to Glencoe to visit him, often into their teens and 20s.

Anstine says he derives the most satisfaction from the successes of less athletically inclined students.

He smiles, remembering the astonished look on the face of a kid who, during a PE class drill, threw a ball high against the gymnasium wall and caught it for the first time ever on its return.

'He stayed with it,' Anstine says. 'And he caught his first one. And by the time he finished, he'd caught four of them. Those are the things É that light in his eye.'

Trying on retirement

When Anstine talks about such things, it's hard to imagine him retired.

He laughs recounting how a reporter recently asked a girl in his class whether she'd miss him.

She answered: 'I think he'll miss us more than we'll miss him,' he says, smiling. 'And there's a certain amount of that that could be true. I will miss it. I'll just have to try it out.'

He's retiring in part because of his back, and in part because like thousands of retiring teachers across Oregon he's worried how changes in state-sponsored teacher retirement benefits could affect his retirement income if he doesn't leave the job now.

His immediate plans: traveling with a friend in an old motor home.

'Old motor home. Old car. Old guy. They all fit together,' he says, smiling.

Maybe he'll teach part time again, he says. Maybe he'll have to develop some hobbies for the first time in his life.

In the meantime, Glencoe will have a new PE teacher next year, who will do fine, Glencoe Principal Judy Scott says.

But, she says, 'We're not going to have a replacement for Mr. A. That's a once-in-a-lifetime type of person.'

Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..