By R. Chantz Richens
When asked about his years as a teacher, James Thompson offers a simple summary. “I just did my job,” he states. However, those five words encapsulate much more than loyal duty. They offer a glimpse into Thompson’s thirty-plus years of service to Carbon County.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, that’s the weird part,” Thompson admits with a laugh. Teaching for him is, literally, in his blood, as his ancestry boasts several others teachers, all leading to Thompson’s career choice. The subject, however, was another point of debate.
Despite a love of history, Thompson chose a different route for his major. “I had a teacher who taught world literature and she absolutely turned me on to literature and to English,” he recalled. It was that literature teacher who combined both history, culture and other information with her literature studies that helped Thompson find a passion for the written word.
“I just dove in and took as many English classes as I could,” he explained. By the time he graduated from Western Michigan University, Thompson boasted a major in communication arts and sciences, but enough English credits to qualify for a double major in today’s world of academia.
After a seven year-tenure in Michigan that found Thompson juggling English and starting up debate teams, Thompson found himself in need of a job along with a piece of advice on where to look: go south or west. His answer? “I just wasn’t ready for a Southern mentality. So I thought, ‘let’s go west.’”
Thus, Thompson found himself in a job interview with members of the Carbon School District. It was during that interview that former superintendent, George Behunin, entered the interview briefly with a piece of advice. “Hire him!” he said. As Thompson laughed at the memory, he remembered Behunin saying, “He seems to have an answer for everything and he’ll make a great debate coach!”
Hired as a debate coach, Thompson coached the Carbon High debate team for nine years, leading the school’s team to their first state victory in his last year of coaching in 1990.
“When I was able to get out of that, that’s when the position of teaching seniors came in for me,” he further elaborated. From that point on, Thompson taught the senior classmen of Carbon High School about literature analysis to sentence syntax.
Wanting to challenge the students with whom he associated, Thompson worked to bring other, more challenging classes to the student body through the AP Program.
“It expanded, but the AP English was the oldest one of the bunch. That’s where it started,” he explained. While taking over the AP Literature and Composition course after former teacher Emma Entwistle’s death, Thompson helped bring other programs to the school such as music, Spanish, physics and world history.
“The man is brilliant,” co-worker and fellow CHS English teacher Gail Scoville expressed. “He was so smart and is so well-read.”
“I’ve been honored in many ways,” Thompson admitted. Among his awards have been being named Teacher of The Year by the Utah Education Association, an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters through CEU, among other awards.
“The awards have always been nice to me, but I’ve never done it for the awards,” he admitted. “I think my biggest reward, honestly, has been to see the success of my students.”
“I think I was lucky,” explained Cami Carlson, another fellow English teacher at the Price-based high school. “Because I was able to have him as a teacher and then work alongside him and see what all went into what he did.”
“As a student, I loved how he incorporated the history so richly into the literature that he read,” Carlson continued. “I knew for sure I wanted to do that in my classroom.”
Despite teaching techniques, one of the things that set Thompson apart as a teacher was his love for students.
“I remember a time when one of our students was in D.T. for drug abuse,” Carlson related. She continued to tell, with fondness, of how Thompson took the time to write the student a letter. A letter which, as the student explained when he returned, touched him deeply and, according to Carlson, was a factor in his changing for good.
Those who have benefited from Thompson’s legacy have gone on to make their marks on the world in fields of medicine, dentistry and even lawyers. Thompson still remembers one of his “debaters” that would eventually make a name for himself and his business: Tony Basso.
“I remember,” Thompson said in regards to a specific incident when Basso tried to sell debate briefcases to novice team members, “he had two armfuls of those things and he was selling them in my classroom and I said to him, ‘What are you? Mad-Man Basso?’ and it stuck.”
Now retired, Thompson’s love for teaching is still evident. “Every time I read something I wish I would have taught it,” he explained. “Because sharing it and getting other kids exposed to that I think was always my goal: is to get them as interested as I was.”
“His greatest legacy is instilling that thirst for learning in students,” Scoville asserted.
“I love what I did, I think that’s the difference,” Thompson himself explained. “If you love it, you show it.”