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Teacher has seen changes in 36-year career

July 29, 1997

By RICHARD F. BELISLE

Staff Writer, Waynesboro

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - When Richard Wagner began teaching social studies at St. Thomas High School in 1960, the most serious student discipline problems were chewing gum and talking in class.

Girls' dresses had to be a certain length and they could only wear slacks in the two coldest months of the year, he said. Alcohol, drugs, talking back to teachers, lack of manners, hip-hop clothes and body jewelry were unheard of. Students feared their teachers, he said.

Wagner's salary that first year was $3,000.

When he retired this year from James Buchanan High School in Mercersburg, Pa., his salary was $50,000.

"There was no way back then that I ever figured I would make that kind of money," he said.

Another major difference over that time is the number of students who work after school, he said. Early in his career, the few who worked were helpers on family farms. Now, most of his students have after-school jobs at places like the Whitetail Ski Resort, fast-food restaurants or convenience stores.

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"Those kinds of jobs didn't exist. They start out with a weekend job, then start working more and more hours," he said.

Some of his students work up to 35 hours a week, about the same amount of time he puts in. Some work too much, he said. "They come in sleepy and their grades start to slide," he said.

School was the center of the universe in a small town like St. Thomas in 1960, he said.

"It was the focal point of the kids' social lives. School was a microcosm of society," he said.

Wagner saw the changes over nearly four decades of teaching.

Students today come to school with more emotional problems, he said.

"There's lots of reasons. The family foundation has more cracks today," he said.

In today's families, both parents work, and about half of his kids do not live with both their natural parents, he said.

Wagner, 62, taught at St. Thomas High School until 1966, when the school became part of the new consolidated Tuscarora School District. The old James Buchanan High School became the regional high school until a new school with the same name was built in 1972.

Wagner estimates he has taught more than 7,000 students in nearly three generations during his career.

"When you get to school at 6:30 a.m. every day, year after year, you know you're building something. I taught the parents of a lot of these kids, and I was close to teaching their grandparents," he said.

He has coached baseball, basketball and football, was a school sports announcer and a student council and National Honor Society adviser over the years.

Wagner sees technology as the biggest change.

"It's playing a bigger role in education, from television to computers and the Internet. In 1960, term papers were hand-written. Now they're all done on computers," he said.

Wagner has no immediate plans for his retirement and no regrets about leaving the classroom forever.

"I loved every minute of it and I'd do it again. It's what I always wanted to do, but I'm walking away on my own terms."

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