Rick Zimmer has a secret. He says he won’t tell, but, well, he mentions it a half-dozen times throughout the day Tuesday.
The fifth time he mentions it, the Roosevelt PE teacher is talking about his counterparts at other schools. Traditional schools, classrooms with 40 kids, kickball games and laps around the field.
“I have friends that do that,” Zimmer says. “And I go, ‘How do you that, man?’ And they look at me and say, ‘How do you do it at your place?’ And I don’t tell ‘em.”
The third time he mentions it, he’s talking about the reputation Roosevelt High School has. Like others at the school, he frequently brings up the reputation. He’s been here for 29 years, after a teaching gig at a treatment center fell through when he pulled up on his first day and the director of the center was being led away in handcuffs.
“Yeah, I know of the reputation, and I don’t shy away from the reputation,” he says. He started as the supervisor of Roosevelt’s in-school suspension room. Within a year, he’d asked if he could start a physical education and health program. “We have kids who struggle and bring some stuff with ‘em, some baggage with ‘em, but it’s our job to deal with them. I love being the Roosevelt guy. Friggin’ love it. I love it.”
He goes back to his conversations with teachers elsewhere.
“‘Oh how do you guys deal with those crazy kids,’” he imitates. “I’m like, ‘Dude. I’ve got the best-kept secret in the world, man.’ I’ve got it.”
The secret is he loves his job. The secret is that he thinks he has the best job in the world. The secret is the kids standing on thin wooden beams, suspended 20 feet in the air, whispering curse words and enduring some light torment from the man they call Zim.
Zim is a stereotype who accepts the role and then pushes to expand it. He has a closely-cropped goatee on the sort of timeless face that most gym teachers seem to have. A former college football player, he wears a black polo and rolls up the sleeves slightly over bulging biceps. He drinks a chocolate protein shake for lunch. It’s unclear if he can control the volume of his voice. His favorite topics are fitness and social-emotional learning. He quotes neuroscientific research and plays Kenny Chesney. He says the day he can’t climb or lift with his students is the day he retires.
On this Tuesday, as Kenny Chesney plays, Zim stands on the gym floor and looks almost straight up. Standing on the fourth beam are two students. They’re wearing helmets and harnesses, with ropes looping from their waist to the ceiling and back down, where 10 students hold the lines behind Zimmer. It’s a trust exercise on steroids.
The two students are nearly to the top beam. The course — the Dangling Duo — is several beams suspended in the air atop each other, connected by wires, with five feet or so separating each beam from its neighbors. Those students who make it to the top beam get to sign their name. Those who don’t will try again, growth and progress more tangible as any test score.
These two students were so confident that they asked Zimmer for his black Sharpie as they were pulling on their helmets. Now they’re wavering, and Zimmer shouts that he wants his marker back.
One of the students finally makes a break for the top beam, swinging her leg up and over. She clings to the wood like a dangling sloth before rolling over the beam and sitting upright. Leaning over, she reaches down and grabs her classmate’s leg, helping to bring it over the top beam.
“Jesus,” the second girl says.
“Gee whiz,” Zim corrects.
“Gee whiz,” the girl agrees, rolling her eyes and flaring her nostrils.
The two girls sign their names. Then they stand up and lean back, until they’re hanging over empty space, 20 feet above the gym floor. At Zimmer’s call, the girls drop as their spotters slowly walk forward, lowering the climbers to the floor.
“That was teamwork deluxe,” Zimmer says.
Two more students step up. Zimmer straps them in, and one of them asks for the marker.
Throughout the day, as different groups of students wander into his second-floor classroom before heading to the gym or the weight room, Zim gives a private assessment of each class.
That first group, with the Gee Whiz girl, that’s a good group. The kids care about each other. Did you see the two older girls who were so eager to help the younger students into the harnesses? That one girl who climbed nearly to the top of the climbing wall, she barely moved last year. That new kid, Evanston, (“like the town in Wyoming”), he proudly announced that he climbed higher today than he did yesterday.
Zimmer’s second group, they were a different story. They were “struggling with taking care of each other,” he said. He wants to see more love and more trust. They’re a weird group. Some of them have “horrendous” home lives. They need to care for each other. Have to.
This assessment is part of Zimmer’s obsession with the students’ social-emotional growth. It’s a big part of the ropes course he has in the gym, which he’s had for three years as part of a grant he earned. Sure, it’s an activity that’s unique and interesting. But that’s a side benefit to the growth he hopes will be inspired by the ropes and harnesses and teamwork.
Take Gee Whiz and her partner. They had to work together to reach the top. More basically, they had to trust their 10 classmates to catch them if they fell. Those 10 kids’ attention was the only thing standing between the two climbers and hardwood.
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Why the obsession with social-emotional growth?
“I see that’s where they’re deficient,” Zimmer says. He’s sitting in his classroom during lunch, which until now was empty. But his last class of the day is filing in. Students pull up chairs and listen. The walls are covered in inspirational posters found in classrooms anywhere. A small sign on his desk announces that “Sweat is fat crying.”
“I think – especially the kids at Roosevelt, for some reason, be it their own doing or just situationally — socially, they’re not where they need to be,” he continues. “They don’t feel comfortable in a group, they don’t know how to get along in a group, they can’t sit here and play a game without cursing and getting mad and throwing a card. There’s no cooperation. So that social aspect is huge to me because if we can play together, we can live together.”
Playing kickball isn’t going to do it for these kids, he says. It’s not going to give them the tools they need to make it, and if Roosevelt is about anything, it’s about making sure these kids make it.
He looks around at the room as more students trickle in. The kids are quietly chattering. They’re going to hit the weight room in a few minutes. Today they’re working on their triceps and shoulders.
“See?” he says, his voice loud again. He’d said this was a good class, a good group. “This is such a pro-social class!”
He lower his voice again to a speaking level and brings up the girls who were helping students pull on their harnesses. He’s beaming.
“That’s it! That’s the whole thing!” — he’s talk-shouting joyously now — “That’s how you get along in this world. That’s it. That’s it. You see the value in something, and then you help others. That’s it.”
Zim’s two favorite things, fitness and social-emotional learning. Years ago, back when Roosevelt was in the old building in north Casper, Zimmer pitched a program in a staff meeting. He needed one English teacher and the school’s worst-performing readers.
The plan was to get the kids’ heart rates up for 20 minutes. Have them run, lift, jump, whatever. Twenty minutes, then back into the classroom. Longtime teacher Nancy Ochs agreed to be part of it.
“Reading scores went through the roof, it was no brainer, bam,” Zimmer says. The math teacher came forward next.
Now the school’s modest weight room is open all the time (albeit under teacher supervision). Every kid needs two PE credits to graduate, so Zimmer gets to see every Roosevelt kid. He gets to impress upon each one the importance of fitness and of being a good teammate, a good classmate.
It’s not only about the test scores, either, Zimmer says. It’s about a lifetime of fitness and meeting these kids where they are. It’s about writing a grant to get a climbing wall and the Dangling Duo. It’s about the Roosevelt tradition from the old building, when the students would walk a mile every morning to the Boys and Girls Club to have breakfast together.
It’s about helping the students in every way he can, whether that’s doing laundry for them or giving them soap and deodorant.
“It’s a passion for us to put out a good product,” he says. “Now what that product looks like to somebody else, I don’t give a sh – uh shine-ola. Don’t care. I know what the product looks like to us, I know what it feels like, I know what it sounds like. It’s the best-kept secret, it’s full of passionate people and it’s full of fantastic kids.”
Zimmer is uncomfortable with this whole thing. He doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. He says his peers, the other teachers, they deserve the attention. As he walks to the gym, he stands behind longtime social studies teacher Susan Griffith and points excitedly at her back.
Or the focus should be on the kids. They’re doing all the work here.
“Think about these kids,” he says during lunch. “They’ve decided – a lot of ‘em, they’ve had a bad experience somewhere — they’ve decided to give it another shot. They’ve decided to come here every day and put up with teachers who are driven. And every day they’re showing up.”
His voice starts rising again.
“They’re getting something out of it, or they would’ve bagged it,” he says. “They’ve bagged everything else! They’ve bagged all their other opportunities. So why are they staying? Well it’s because they’re leaning a little bit along the way, they’re comfortable and they have an amount of fortitude inside of them.”
He’s happy here. It’s the best-kept secret in the world, this job. He wants to add outdoor ropes courses, onto the field between Roosevelt and CY Junior High. He wants to keep watching the kids climb, a little higher every day. He couldn’t make these connections at other schools.
So no, he’s not thinking about retirement. And no, he isn’t considering changing schools.
“There’s no way. There’s no way,” he says, his voice slowly rising again. He starts laughing in short bursts. “There’s no way. No way!”
Editor's note: Susan Griffith is a social studies teacher. A previous version of this story identified her as an English teacher. Additionally, CY Junior High is located near Roosevelt. A previous version of this story misidentified which school was nearby.