To the head of the class: Former Roaring Fork student steps in to fill ailing teacher’s shoes |

To the head of the class: Former Roaring Fork student steps in to fill ailing teacher’s shoes

Will Grandbois /
Staff Photo |

When longtime Roaring Fork High School math teacher Ralph Young became seriously ill at the beginning of Christmas vacation, finding someone to fill in for him wasn’t easy.

Young had a mass in his brain, but the diagnosis wasn’t, and still isn’t, conclusive. There was no way of telling how long he would be out of commission, and the average substitute teacher isn’t equipped to cover calculus indefinitely.

“With it starting right at the beginning of winter break, at least the school had two weeks to figure out what we were gonna do,” Young observed.

Enter Jay Engstrom, 24, a former student of Young’s, who was home from Durango for Christmas. Young taught Engstrom calculus, precalculus, trigonometry and geometry, as well as some extra honors work.

Engstrom also starred in “Godspell,” which Young directed, and either acted or manned the lights in numerous other productions. Engstrom completed his degree in engineering with a math minor at Fort Lewis a couple of years ago, and had been “dabbling” in various occupations since then.

“He didn’t have the teaching credentials, but he knew the math,” said Young. “I knew his character and his capability.”

Wendy Boland, another RFHS math teacher and a friend of the Engstroms, pitched the idea.

“She knew I was looking for a job,” said Engstrom. “I’ve always been curious about teaching, and this was the perfect opportunity.”

A week after school resumed, Engstrom was in the classroom. For the first week, he was supervised by another substitute while his paperwork was being processed, and although he had all the qualifications to sub, the application process is usually a lengthy one.

“There was a lot of emergency paperwork going through the Colorado Department of Education,” Young recalled.

“It was scary, actually. I’ve always been a student,” Engstrom admitted.

Luckily, he had a lot of support from Young, as well as lesson plans through the end of the semester. Young even kept up with grading while he was in and out of hospitals.

“It’s been a slow, slow confusing process full of hurdles,” Young said of four months of treatment and diagnosis.

Initially, doctors attributed his symptoms to a brain tumor. They operated and took a biopsy. Since then, he’s dealt with various complications including a blood clot that migrated to his lungs that set him back weeks in physical therapy.

It’s beginning to look like relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), but that’s far from a complete diagnosis. A spinal tap came back negative for MS, but there’s a 30 percent chance of a false negative. Blood-work and biopsies have ruled out a lot of other possibilities.

“At this point, with still no diagnosis or treatment, it makes no sense for me to go back,” Young said. “I’m finding, with my physical limitations and between all the appointments, my days get full of just trying to take care of myself.”

In the meantime, Engstrom has moved up what he admits is “a really big learning curve.” He’s learned how to plan classes, and is relying on Young less and less. He covers four Math 2 courses and calculus.

His youth doesn’t seem to be an issue, although his younger brother Wes is one of his students.

“I think it’s a good situation,” he said, “I feel like they’re not afraid to talk to me.”

Math isn’t the only role that needs to be filled in Young’s absence. Shanti Gruber is covering the drama course, and Adam Rudd will join Rachael Cooper on the summer trip to Europe that Young and Cooper usually take a group of students on.

Young traces his eclectic assortment of roles back to college. He majored in broadcast journalism, then pursued a career in radio and eventually photojournalism. His job exposed him to education, and after five years he went back to school for a teaching certification — in theatre and speech for fun and mathematics for more practical reasons.

He soon discovered there were benefits to an interdisciplinary approach.

“It’s really nice to see kids in different venues,” he said.

Engstrom, meanwhile, is looking for a permanent place to live here in the valley with his girlfriend, who hopes to student teach in the fall. Even so, he’s committing to teaching only until the end of the semester. Having tested the waters, he’s hesitant to take the plunge.

“I found it really takes a special person to teach and I’m not sure I’m cut out for it in the long run,” he observed. “There’s a lot more to it than I was expecting.”

Young is sympathetic.

“It’s a really demanding job,” he said. “There are days where it’s rough because you don’t know if you’re getting through. Just because you went to school for 13-20 years it doesn’t mean you know what teaching is all about. I’ve been in the hospital a lot lately but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to be a doctor.”

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