Teacher Max Lemon: Squeezing Lemonade out of LifeDec 15th, 2011 | By Mike Morris | Category: Community
“He says, ‘You’re too old to be teaching,’ and I said, ‘Maybe so – I’m not going to argue that – but we both know you’re much too old to be acting the way you are,’ ” says Lemon, who is now 80 and continues to substitute.
“After that, he straightened right up. He became my advocate, and got others quiet when I needed them to be.”
Indeed, when life has handed Max Lemon lemons, he’s made lemonade.
Just as he has his whole life, Lemon walks with a cane. Born and raised on a Utah dairy farm, he caught a high fever when he was 6 months old. As a result, he developed a lifelong limp from what he later learned was brain scarring.
“I never learned to walk,” he says. “I learned to waddle.”
His mother, a schoolteacher, sent him to school despite a doctor’s decree that he would be unable to learn or even attend classes.
Still, you won’t hear a single complaint come out of his mouth.
“I have a hard time being serious,” he continues. “I believe God put us here to enjoy life — not to worry or whine. You have to accept what you got and move forward.”
Not only is he an optimist, but Lemon is a jokester. He credits his sense of humor with allowing him to last as long as he has in the public school system. Lemon taught chemistry at Sonora High for 38 years before retiring in 2001. During that time, he also taught physics, biology, and algebra. For the past 10 years, he’s been substitute teaching there — and not just the sciences.
“I’ve taught them all — physical education, chorus, art, all the subjects,” he says. “I am a believer that you have to be serious about teaching, but you have to have some humor or it’s not going to work.”
Lemon’s teaching style seems to be working for Justine Abbott, a 17-year-old senior who’s had “Mr. Lemon,” as she calls him, for subjects including history and anatomy.
“He is my favorite substitute teacher ever,” she says. “He’s so fun, he’s just darling. He tells jokes and everyone laughs, but he also knows how to get down to business and make us do our work.”
That’s not to say every student — all of whom are more than 60 years his junior — understand his sense of humor.
A common joke of Lemon’s goes like this: “Two hydrogen atoms are talking to each other and the first one said, ‘I think I lost my electron,’ and the second one said, ‘Are you sure?’ and the first one said, ‘I am positive.’ ”
Some students will laugh, others will roll their eyes and “some get it three days later,” Lemon says.
Still, Lemon says that substituting, which he does an average of three days a week, keeps him sharp. He adds that “99 percent” of students are respectful of him, although if he had his way those students would dress more modestly and use less profanity. “I am of the opinion schools need to demand civil language,” he says.
A devout Mormon, Lemon is active with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in East Sonora. And for further proof he can’t get teaching out of his system, he teaches Sunday school.
As a young man, he worked on his father’s dairy farm. He then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dairy husbandry, a teaching degree in zoology and physiology, and later completed advanced courses in chemistry and physics.
While teaching science class at a public high school in Utah, Lemon was offered a chemistry teaching position at Sonora High.
“California teachers made more money than Utah teachers, yet the cost of living was about the same at that time,” he recalls.
Lemon moved to Tuolumne County in 1963 with his wife, Janet, and four of their nine children (a tenth child died in infancy). Their children now live throughout the country and work a variety of occupations.
Max and Janet married on Valentine’s Day 1957. “I talked her out of a four-year college scholarship to marry me,” he says with a laugh.
So did she make the right decision?
“If I had it to do all over again, I would have made the same choice,” Janet says.
In 1965, after living in what Lemon calls a “dilapidated shack” in Columbia for two years, he and his family moved into the home that he and Janet now share on Orchard Avenue, a short walk from the high school.
During his days as a full-time teacher, Lemon often worked from 6:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. He supervised after-school detention, taught adult school in the evenings and tutored students at all hours.
Lemon says his philosophy is that he was “hired to teach, not to fail.” He says if a student failed his class it was by their choice as he gave ample opportunity for tutoring, which he referred to as “Lemon-aid.”
Over the decades, he has shown compassion to students who came from difficult home environments. Lemon estimates he’s loaned out thousands of dollars to students in need of things like school lunches (he says he’s recovered all but about $50).
“For some, home is a war zone and school is their refuge,” he says.
Students he taught in the early 1960s are now the grandparents of his current students. He’s also taught many current and former teachers at Sonora High.
One of them is Yvonne Denton (class of 1990), who teaches music and directs the school’s Golden Regiment Band. Denton was a chemistry student of Lemon’s, as was her dad (class of 1967), her uncle (class of 1966), her cousin (class of 1989) and her sister (class of 1994).
“He cares immensely about students, staff, everyone,” she says. “I am so impressed that after so many students, he remembers names and faces of individuals. He still talks about teaching my dad and uncle.”
Denton, 39, says she’s glad her oldest son was able to have Lemon as a substitute teacher, and she hopes that her middle son – now a freshman at Sonora High – will have the opportunity to have Lemon as a substitute.
“I am always thrilled when Max subs for me for band and music classes,” says Denton, who teaches choir, guitar, band and jazz band. “He’s an inspiration and a wonderful, wonderful person.”
If he has his way, Lemon will be inspiring students for many years to come. Asked how long he plans to teach, he answers instantly, “Till I die. You want to die? Quit working.”
© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine