High school English teacher Jim Slagel’s classroom is anything but ordinary.
His walls are lined with senior portraits of past students, leaving barely any space for all of his the colorful artwork, satirical cartoons and sayings. Microwave popcorn and red licorice are classroom staples, and if you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of his two basset hound “children,” Odell and Hastings.
Both former and current students will tell you that the only “ordinary” thing about the 28-year Kapālama veteran is his wardrobe, which always includes a touch of tie-dye.
“If I’m not in tie-dye, people really freak out,” said Slagel, whose wife, former KSK mathematics teacher, Kim Slagel also sported the colorful attire.
The pair landed in the islands by way of California after Kim Slagel had the desire to leave her hometown of foggy Pacifica, Calif. for warmer, tropical weather. They met while in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where Jim Slagel says his affection for tie-dye really took off.
Raised in the Midwest, Slagel always had California on his mind. After college he spent six months as a “Deadhead,” the name given to fans that traveled to see rock band the Grateful Dead in the 1970s, eventually ending up in the Bay Area.
“Everything about that time period, from the arts, culture, literature and the tie-dye is so fascinating. I have sort of this wanderlust because of it all,” said Slagel, who taught at five different schools before settling down at KS. “Once I got to Kamehameha I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something happening here that’s really nice.’
“I like the autonomy we’re given and I’ve been extremely lucky to have great department heads such as Wanda Porter and now Ka‘imi Kaiwi, so there’s a great deal of stability. “I learn so much from my colleagues, administrators, it’s all so phenomenal.”
Slagel currently teaches advanced placement English, taking over the program in 2000 after the retirement of longtime AP teacher Beth Powers. He also teaches an American satire course, creative writing, grammar and sophomore English.
He recently returned from sabbatical, which was spent fine-tuning a grammar unit he’d been building over the years, before finally uploading it to the Internet. Titled “Basic Basset,” it breaks the English language down into its simplest form, or as Slagel puts it, “Language so easy even a basset hound can learn it.”
The unit, which is used by instructors at the University of Portland, University of Hawai‘i–West O‘ahu and Wai‘anae High School, also features 30 ʻōlelo Hawai‘i bridges created by KS students, faculty and community members.
Grammar and colorful threads aside, Slagel’s passion is community service and giving back.
Both he and his wife advised KSK’s Treehuggers Club, which has since evolved into the Cat and Dog Huggers Club, where students, along with the Slagels care for the feral cat colony on campus and assists local animal shelters around O‘ahu.
The duo also started an Amnesty International Club, introducing students to the actions one has the ability to take in order to combat local, national and world issues. Slagel and his students even became the go-to volunteer group for singer-songwriter Jack Johnson’s environmental awareness benefit concert, the Kōkua Festival.
“It’s great to see what the students are able to accomplish outside the classroom, but even better to know that Kamehameha supports these efforts,” Slagel said. “The students here have the desire and passion to be leaders in the community; it’s my job to provide that avenue for them.”
Slagel says that during his nearly 30 years of service to KSK, what he treasures the most is simple.
“Sure, grammar is important, and the literature is nice too, but the casual conversations with the students is what I enjoy the most,” Slagel shared.
He enjoys being tucked away in the basement of the campus’ W.O. Smith Building, where he need not wait for students to come waltzing in, they just do.
This story is part of “I Mua Kamehameha,” an ongoing effort to celebrate the excellence of KS campus and community education programs. Inspirational stories will be shared throughout the year about KS servant leaders who are improving the lives of KS haumāna and contributing to a thriving Lāhui.
Pics by KS photographer Michael Young.