Tarp’s end of an era


By Lucas Rosevear

After 27 years, English teacher David Tarpinian is retiring from teaching at Tam and from full time teaching entirely. Known for his personal style and involvement in the founding of many Tam programs, Tarpinian agreed to a farewell interview to flesh out his personal and professional life before, during, and after Tam. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What did you do before you taught?

I was a real estate developer. But I did a variety of things in the context of developing real estate. I [had] realized I really enjoyed working with wood, so I got a job as a carpenter and apprenticed with a couple of veteran boat builders. I worked with them for a couple of years and they pretty much taught me the ropes.

Did you come out of the real estate business successful?

Yeah, around the late 80s or early 90s I decided to move to California and I divested myself of all my businesses [on the East Coast], partly because I rode the wave and it was time to get out because savings and loans were crumbling and money was tight. So I decided it was time to pack up and do something new.

What brought you to teaching?

Right out of the undergraduate school I had taught for a year and a half at an experimental private high school and just relished that experience. Almost from day one, the minute I walked into a classroom I knew I had found what I wanted to do for the next number of years. But I never saw it as a career that would last 27 years. I thought, “Eh, okay, this is fun, this is interesting, this feels really comfortable and I’m at home in this environment. I’ve got a little experience under my belt and I think I have a lot to offer adolescents and I’ll try this for 8 or 10 years.”

What about it made you stick with it for 17 more years than you thought you might?

I love it. I mean, I still do. It kept my head in the game, it kept me sharp, it kept me on my toes. I loved the interaction with adolescents and developing curriculum and creating programs. [I liked] the challenges that present themselves to high school students that are not academic. To interact and to relate kids in a meaningful way, [to be] everything from a mentor or adviser to a nemesis to a kind of a pain in the ass to some kids, all of it has just been invigorating and fun.

But I’m working harder to keep things interesting and there’s almost a diminishing return. You can be wildly engaging and interesting to kids and they just can’t find an access point. They’re way too distracted. So I’m at that teetering point of “Eh, do I really want to work harder than the kids in my classroom?” And the answer is, kinda, no.

What do you think has changed that has made the teaching dynamic different?

I think it’s complicated. There’s all this emphasis, especially in this school, put on college and college applications and grades and less and less emphasis on learning. And I don’t mean that there are no kids here who are interested in learning; there really are. But the numbers of kids that are just transactional — “tell me what to do to get the grade, and if don’t like the grade I’m going to argue with you about why I should get the grade” — that’s kind of changed the purpose of why we’re all here.

And I think I still believe in this old-fashioned idea that we’re here to learn. I like to create a community in the classroom where we’re all here for that single purpose of learning. And I see that there’s been a change in that.

What programs were you involved with or did you help create here at Tam?

When I was hired back in ‘92 or ‘93 I was asked to create an Academic Workshop program and a Peer Resource program, and, either the first or second year, to create a summer transition program for Marin City kids. And a smaller task I was asked to do was create a smaller in-house independent study program. And then the push came for me to teach more English classes and turn those programs over to other people, which I did. And since then they’ve taken different turns and twists but in one form or another they’ve all [been] sustained.

What was the transition program for Marin City?

There was an administrator here at the time, in fact the person who was instrumental in me getting hired, Sandy Piotter. There was a big focus on creating a better transition for kids who were coming from Marin City, especially coming from MLK. They just historically had been less well prepared than Mill Valley Middle School (MVMS) kids for what they encountered here. Because they were less well prepared they were seen as less academic. But it had nothing to do with inherent intelligence, it just had to do with preparation.

So Sandy and I kinda put our heads together and worked with Jewel Barrow, who retired a few years ago, and we created a summer school transition program that all the kids at MLK were enrolled in. I provided an English curriculum and then I would recruit somebody to do math, because those were the two areas that seemed to be the most challenging. And we would piece together an innovative curriculum and kinda make it fun, because it was summer and not what every kid wanted to do. [We also] worked with a woman in Marin City, Terry Green, who runs a few different organizations. She would organize the jobs and the kids would get paid, and they liked making the money.

What was Peer Resource like when you founded it?

One of the big things that the Peer Resource class did was the condom distribution program. We set up peer counseling programs where the students were trained to mediate conflict and often if students were having conflict they’d get referred to peer mediators first. We did presentations on drug and alcohol abuse. We got recognized for knowing what we were doing and then started doing more and more work in this school.

What about AIM?

Mike Goldstein and I had been working together as core partners, and one May we decided we would cobble together some technology. We had been approached by a parent who wanted to do an oral history of the elders of Marin City before they died. And she wanted to offer her support as an oral historian if we would offer our help and provide students to go gather all this information. So we loved the idea and she was so organized and so helpful. We had about a hundred students go into the communities and essentially do what started as an oral history, but then it became “identify a problem in each community and make a video.”

So we had these five early Mac computers, limited access to editing tools, and 20 kids working in each group, but they went out and gathered all of this information, talking to local celebrities, people who were movers and shakers. By the end of May we had five films that we showed in the student center. And we were shocked. We had about 450 people show up.

And the films were incredible. They were really good and they got a lot of attention from the community, a lot of attention from the superintendent, who was impressed enough to encourage us to create a program. So Goldstein and I realized at the time that we needed a third person because he was really interested in the technology: the filming and the editing aspect. I was more involved with the narrative and storytelling and the kind of literary aspects of what we were doing. So it just organically grew and [Sharilyn] Scharf became involved as the social studies person. So it became English, social studies, and documentary film.

It was either 2001 or 2002 that AIM had its first year. I think I left AIM in 2013 or 2014. For those first 12-13 years I was involved in the creation of it and the sustaining of it for that period of time.

Why did you leave AIM?

I think it steered away from its original mission. And my interest and focus has always been on those more marginalized students and not on the high-achieving ones. They can be interesting and assets to a class but it’s often that underserved group that has so much interesting stuff to share and they don’t often get a voice. So I wanted to provide a program that would offer a voice to as many of those students as we could. The change was inevitable, I guess, because the program was successful and it got a lot of attention.

Did your interpretation of a changing culture at Tam influence your decision to retire?

Yeah. [But] I don’t want to be coy about it. What pushed it for me was the district offered a one-time incentive that economically would have been foolish not to take, especially considering I would be working for [only] another year. But I had also, even before that became a thing, begun to have some misgivings about changes that I was seeing and direction of the school. It was a complicated, emotional decision I made to move on. And I don’t plan to stop working.

Is there anything you plan to do aside from work after Tam?

I don’t know, there are a lot of places to go. But traveling is a bit of a balancing act for [me and my wife] because we have very active horse riding lives. We both compete and we both keep horses in competition.

You ride horses?

Yeah. I probably spend as much time [riding horses] as I do here. I’ve been competing in a variety of equestrian events for the last 30-something years. I do three-day eventing, which involves stadium jumping, cross country jumping, and dressage, and I’ve won a number of ribbons. But that takes up a lot of my time. If I were going to think of what distracts me from this and what I’d rather spend my time doing it would be that.

Photos by Samantha Ferro.