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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Roger Widmer traded a mechanic’s life for a teacher’s. He reflects on life in the classroom as he prepares to retire

Roger Widmer, a teacher at Highland Middle School, poses for a photo on June 15 in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a Spokesman-Review series on teachers in local school districts retiring after long careers in education.

Now that he’s retiring after some 20 years in education, perhaps one day the students at Highland Middle School will realize how lucky they were to be in Roger Widmer’s classroom.

He inspired his students with books – stacks of them – but Widmer also showed that life doesn’t always go by the book.

Growing up in Spokane Valley, he graduated from University High School, earned an associate’s degree and found his passion as a diesel truck mechanic.

“I really enjoyed taking things apart and fixing them – I really liked that,” said Widmer, who worked as a mechanic for 27 years.

And the money was good, more than enough to raise a family. Yet something was missing.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” said Widmer, who finally took the leap thanks to a program at Eastern Washington University that catered to people who already had two-year degrees.

That meant quitting his job to pursue a dream, a risk that many don’t have the courage to take.

Widmer’s first job was at in the Mead School District, at Farwell Elementary, teaching third- and fifth-graders.

“They are so inquisitive,” Widmer said. “To do this job you have to remember what it’s like to be a kid, and you have to have a sense of humor.”

“I heard from a lot kids who said, ‘Mr. Widmer, you tell the funniest stories,’ ” he recalled.

Widmer worked hard at making learning fun, and paid enough attention to kids to find just the right book to spark their curiosity.

“I love to read, so I had a large library in my classroom,” Widmer said.

He recalled that many kids, especially boys, are reluctant readers and not much more excited about math.

But the rewards of teaching include that special moment when Widmer broke through with one boy by picking out some books he might like.

At the next parent-teacher conference, the boy’s mother told Widmer, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep it up.”

Widmer has used books to create meaningful connections with hundreds of students, many of whom have regressed to intermittent reading because of social media.

His favorite is “Walk Two Moons,” the story of a 13-year-old girl dealing with the breakup of her family. Widmer believes that its themes of relationships, grief, love and death are especially important for adolescents today.

“It’s about understanding why someone acts the way they do,” Widmer said. “When a kid has issues, there’s often an underlying cause.”

The pandemic worsened anxieties for many children, but Widmer tried to keep things relevant during remote learning.

“You want to solve every one of their problems, and sometimes I feel like I just want to take them home,” Widmer said. “But then I try to remember that I’m just one piece of the puzzle for their education.”

“Education was a life-changer for me, but you see things a whole lot differently when you’re with these kids every day,” Widmer said.

That won’t change on retirement, thanks to the 11 grandchildren he looks forward to spending more time with.

“I can’t wait,” Widmer said.