BONNERS FERRY, Idaho – Conrad Garner’s basement is dubbed the “Homework Dungeon.”
That’s where the science teacher and coach sends his wrestlers or other students who have some catching up to do, grades to improve. And that’s where those kids who “need that extra push” stay, his wife, Sandy, said, sometimes for an entire weekend. They only get to come upstairs to eat.
Though many times it’s wrestlers who Garner works overtime to help, he has a reputation for taking on any kid who comes through the doors of Bonners Ferry High School – even the kids Sandy describes as “hard knocks.”
“I’ll tell him, ‘Why do you mess with this kid, he’s a puke,’ ” Sandy Garner said. “And he makes them do well.”
Garner – who has already racked up district teacher of the year, regional teacher of the year and coach of the year honors – was named the state’s top teacher by Phi Delta Kappa, a national professional education association. The award includes $10,000 for the school.
The 42-year-old was surprised with the news at an assembly on the first day of school.
“I was thinking about what I was going to do that day and that summer was over,” Garner said. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”
Then, Garner said a presenter from Wal-Mart, the sponsor of the award, made the announcement.
He has no idea who nominated him, but judging from the praises co-workers and students willingly share, it could have been any one of a number of people.
“He is a very dedicated and, I would say, a most-loved teacher by his students,” said Ed Katz, a good friend and fellow science teacher. “He has a unique relationship with kids at all levels.”
Linda Hall, a wrestling mom and the school’s Spanish teacher, said Garner has helped students who needed tutoring, money or even a place to stay. He donates time to take wrestlers to tournaments across the country and has made such an impression on students that many later return to the high school to thank him, Hall said.
Garner was her oldest son’s science teacher. Aaron Hall is at Washington State University, studying biochemistry. He graduated from Bonners Ferry as a National Merit finalist.
Hall’s other son, 16-year-old Adam, is a national All-American wrestler.
“That’s Conrad Garner, right there,” Hall said.
Garner, who also runs a local wrestling club for kids in grades K-12, started coaching Adam when he was 5.
Sophomore Casey Hampton was just as young when Garner began coaching her in wrestling. She’s on the school team and now takes biology from Garner.
“Students just like him because he gives the impression he cares,” Casey said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, he wants you to succeed and he wants you to do well.”
Katz said Garner often is praised for his coaching ability.
“I don’t think there’s a year you don’t have a state champion from here,” Katz said. “That’s pretty impressive.”
But what is often overlooked, Katz said, is Garner’s intense focus on student achievement.
He’s the only coach Katz knows who requires his athletes to attend a half-hour study hall before each practice.
“I don’t care how good you are as a wrestler,” Katz said. “If you aren’t good in the classroom, he doesn’t want you.”
Sandy Garner said her husband wants all kids to go to college – even if afterward they just return to town and work at the local grocery store.
“He really thinks kids need to experience life outside of Bonners Ferry, yet this is the only place he’d really want to live,” she said. “He wants those kids to get out and really see what life’s about.”
A 1980 graduate of Lakeland High School, Garner was raised in Rathdrum. When the former high school wrestler and science lover heard there were openings for a coach and teacher in Bonners Ferry, another small town, he applied.
“I fit right into it,” he said.
It’s been 18 years since the father of two started working in Bonners Ferry.
“He’s had the staying power to be in the profession longer than the average educator,” Principal Curt Bayer said.
Even after years of teaching, Garner said he still enjoys interacting with students and “causing them to have an ‘aha’ and see the lights turn on.”
He sees the love for science sparked in many students during the annual Memorial Day weekend science trip to Seattle, which he helps organize. Students, many who have never been to a big city, get to visit the Pacific Science Center, the zoo and aquarium and the University of Washington campus.
Only students enrolled in a third year of science, beyond what the state requires for graduation, can go on the trip. It’s an incentive for students to take more science than they normally might, and often inspires students to take a fourth year.
Last year, one of his wrestlers went on the trip. He was rambunctious, Garner said, but settled down when he got inside the science center. He was fascinated and spent hours looking at the exhibits.
“He said, ‘This is like Toyland,’ ” Garner said. “That’s what it’s about to me.”