New DPIE Board Member Joel Simone on How a Literature Course Changed His Life
On Saturday, one of the volunteers working the bar was DPIE’s newest Board Member, Mr. Joel Simone. He is a 1997 graduate of Dublin High School. He is the principal owner of Diablo Valley Design. It is an enterprise that assists businesses to get found on the internet. The mechanisms utilize include web design, online listings and pay per click advertising. Interestingly, his association with DPIE began over a beer at Three Sheets on Village Parkway. In a small group that included the Dielissen family, the topic of DPIE’s website and internet presence was raised. Joel didn’t hesitate to offer his assistance. One thing led to another and it culminated in Mr. Simone joining the organization in a more formal manner.
By itself, this could have been an interesting anecdote to share. However, when we sat down with Joel, he revealed a much more impactful story about the direction of his career, the passion to help underserved students and how one instructor at Las Positas College permanently changed his focus and his mission in life.
Subsequent to high school graduation, Joel was not necessarily thinking about college. He was single-mindedly fixated one goal – to become a film maker. He was always working – often employed in multiple jobs while he pursued his dreams. But as many have discovered, it is a tough industry to break into and could be even more daunting without a formal education. After several years, he rededicated himself to education and enrolled at Las Positas College in Livermore. In the course of completing an A.A. in Visual Communications in 2009, he enrolled in two Literature classes taught by the same instructor, Mr. James Willis. In particular, the experience of the Literature 4 course had a very profound impact upon Mr. Simone. At that stage, James was in the midst of a highly decorated teaching career, both at Granada High School and later at Las Positas. In this class, the students are asked to write a reflective essay that speaks to a turning point in one’s life.
Every semester, Willis offers a deeply personal example of an essay that he wrote titled “Lest We Forget“. It is a 9,000 word piece that he encourages his students to take turns reading aloud. Simply, he wrote this epic tome to honor the life and memory of his youngest son, Colin. The youngest member of the Willis family was born with multiple health complications and was really not expected to survive beyond a few days or perhaps weeks. Yet, Colin defied the odds and experienced the love of his family – including his four siblings until he ultimately perished in 1991. A year later, James sat down in front of a computer and completed his opus. He finished it in one day. Clearly, the impact of this reading and the continued guidance that Mr. Willis provided to Joel moved the relationship far beyond teacher-student. Mr. Simone quickly realized that his new mission in life could include film, but it also needed to include supporting his community and underserved youth. Here is a portion of our discussion.
OneDublin.org: You are one of the newest, if not youngest, members of the DPIE Board of Directors. What is your personal mission in assisting this organization to provide benefits to the entire DUSD community?
Joel Simone: “My mission is to support underserved students and help foster relationships with local businesses. Accomplishing my mission will be possible through DPIE’s programs and summer academy.
“We are currently exploring new programs for underserved students. This includes a social media internship via DPIE’s Gear It Up initiative. The internship would help publicize DPIE’s news to the community. It also serves as an opportunity for students to gain professional experience in publishing, marketing and advertising. Plus it will help promote DPIE’s STEM Summer Academy, where students from all walks of life may gain credits for college.
“The summer academy receives students from Pleasanton, San Ramon and Livermore schools; though it is open to all students. It is profitable and an excellent value for ambitious middle school and high school students preparing for college. Importantly, it will generate additional support and programs for underserved students and the general student body.
“I’m currently exploring creative ways to foster relationships with local businesses. The Doorway Fundraiser is a step in that direction.”
OneDublin.org: In our discussion, you shared your passion for supporting underserved students within the school district. Be more specific and explain why this is important to you.
Simone: “Some of our greatest potential, future heroes await inspiration. These students may not have the same resources and support of others. And just a little push, a bit of guidance, can make a world of difference. Importantly, this isn’t just about results now. This is about providing the information and support that may open doors down the road. I say this having walked that path. As an adult returning, first generation college student, I was classified underserved. Participating in activities with other underserved students opened my eyes to substantial inequalities in income and education. Plus it introduced me to some of the most intelligent, passionate and creative people I’ve ever met.
“In hindsight, I realize how fortunate I was to have mentors that planted the seed for my return to education. This started with influential teachers from here, in the DUSD. Plus it came from close friends who were attending Las Positas College while I was pursuing independent films, just after high school. Those friends went on to become influential teachers and professors themselves. All of these experiences prepared me for my return, 10 years later, at Las Positas College. Importantly, they’ve also inspired me to serve and do my best to make a difference.”
OneDublin.org: We discussed the ongoing “GearUP!” program that exists at Valley High School. Take some time to describe the social media program that you would like to introduce to this school site.
Simone: “The main purpose of the program is to provide professional working experience for GearUP! participants. Students would manage DPIE’s news publishing on social media. Plus they would get entrepreneurial experience actually working on social media from the commercial perspective. There is this sort of misconception that social media is free, or open…I’ve even heard democratic. It’s actually just an online commercial network, so it’s important that we leverage it for local organizations and business.
“This position will provide students with an opportunity to work behind the scenes, gain professional experience and prepare to be agents in a world brimming with media. Plus, they will get to leverage it for an organization dedicated to public education and fostering relationship with local business. It doesn’t get any more grass roots than this.”
OneDublin.org: Your support of the Colin Willis Fund through Easter Seals probably would not have occurred unless you had been engaged in Mr. Willis’ Literature class at Las Positas College. Try to articulate the impact that the experience had on you – up to and including reading the passage “Lest We Forget.”
Simone: “There were a number of factors at play here. One of the major factors was reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables two years prior. The book, to this day, is the most powerful, influential book I’ve ever read. The story put “giving” in a new light for me. I think this increased my desire for something more, tangible and current. I found that in Mr. Willis’ course, which also explores the book.
“In Mr. Willis class, when he began speaking, it just felt like something was happening…and we, the students, we were a part of it. It was not just a lecture, it was participatory. We read the literature out loud. We participated in the plays. We shared our experiences, thoughts and feelings. We challenged each other. For me, it was what I was looking for all long. What I sought in art and film, but what I found first in Les Miserables, before school, and then in Mr. Willis’ course.
“It’s also what inspires The Doorway Fundraiser for Easter Seals and underserved students.”
OneDublin.org: You used the words “philosophic” and “poetic” to describe your personal experience in this Literature course. As one that has matriculated up through Las Positas and into UC Berkeley, what words would you like to share with students that may avoid the community college experience?
Simone: “Las Positas has great people, resources and support – and you can do amazing things with it. For me, it was also a place of discovery. When I left high school I never imagined or desired going to college. I just wanted to make films. When I continued studies, it wasn’t for film…but for things that interested me. I explored worlds in ways I would’ve never imagined. The resources are there. It’s the beauty and importance of public education.
“It’s also kind of ironic. I traveled down the coast of California searching for something, not exactly knowing what it was. Years later I returned home and realized what I was looking for all along was in Mr. Willis’ course. It was philosophic and poetic, and it encouraged me to continue studies here and abroad.
“I know Las Positas can also be a stepping stone in your journey, whether for personal enrichment or continued education.”
OneDublin.org: Please comment on “The Doorway” and how this artistic piece speaks clearly and directly towards the decision of change and acceptance.
Simone: “‘The Doorway’ was a parable from Mr. Willis’ class and had a huge impact on me. In the parable, a man circles within a small room, and each wall represents aspects of his life. But there is one thing he always avoids, and it’s the doorway. At first he is afraid, but then he builds courage and steps through as a new person, transformed.
“The parable is about acceptance & change…really about choosing change and growing. Mr. Willis did an entire lecture on it, and it prepared us for a story about his son, Colin. The lecture about Colin is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in education, entertainment or art. The story recalls his life and the effect he had on Mr. Willis and his family. It’s called ‘Lest We Forget’.
“The purpose of our fundraiser is to keep Colin’s story with us. The Doorway T-shirt serves as a symbol that commemorates Mr. Willis teaching and Colin’s own transformation, his choice. Read the essay, read the poem at the end, “Colin’s Choice,” and explore a beautiful, down to earth testimony of life, acceptance and change. Please share it with those you love.
“Note, we are donating all proceeds from t-shirt sales to the Colin Willis Easter Seals Fund and DPIE’s programs for underserved students. We will be do something every year in memory of Colin and the spirit of giving.”
Subsequently, Joel transferred to UC Berkeley and successfully completed a self-crafted major: B.A. Society and Technology with a Minor in Applied Language Studies in 2011. He continues to work within film circles up to and including the support of “The Doorway.” The film is based upon an essay that was written by James’ brother and is available online via streaming.
We now turn our attention to Joel’s greatest influence, Mr. James Willis. James attained a B.A. in Philosophy from Gonzaga University and later completed a M.A. in English from San Jose State University. Mr. Willis had a distinguished career as an English/Latin instructor at Granada High School. For over the past three decades, he has served as an English Instructor at Las Positas Community College. We recently sat down to gather his thoughts on his relationship with Joel and the lasting impact of writing “Lest We Forget.”
OneDublin.org: Please articulate the relationship that you formed with Joel, as an instructor at LPC, and why you felt that this partnership could ultimately offer the community a general benefit.
James Willis: “In my 35 years of teaching high school English and Latin and in my 30 plus years of teaching college English, I have met, literally, thousands of students. I can honestly say, however, that I have never felt so strongly about a student as I do about Joel Simone.
“Joel is a wonderfully bright, talented, dedicated, hard -working, exceptional young man. He was a student of mine about ten years ago and would surely rank in the top 1% of the thousands of students I’ve taught over the years. He is very bright, insightful, questioning, creative, philosophical, and excited by the prospect of learning. He also just happens to be a very pleasant, humble, interesting, kind, and loving person.
“A contribution that he made to my English class continues to benefit my students to this very day. He put together an interactive, online study guide for my final exam, which students find helpful and, actually, fun to use. Even years after he took my class, Joel’s positive presence still lingers.
“I am convinced that he could someday be a well-respected moviemaker, and I DO know that his contribution to society will be exceptional. I, for instance, am definitely gifted to know him. He also is, and will continue to be, a wonderful ambassador and model to all that is good about America – and we can assuredly use such examples at this rocky time in our history!”
OneDublin.org: Your story about Colin, as it culminated in your piece “Lest We Forget” must have been a life-changing experience. Yet, it was a tale that you were willing to share with your students. Try to describe the process of sitting down to pen this opus.
Willis: “I began writing ‘Lest We Forget’ on August 4, 1992, the first anniversary of Colin’s death. As I recall, I spent approximately eighteen non-stop hours doing so, writing the bulk of the entire 9,000+ words during that stretch. Over the next few days, I did some editing and added details I had at first forgotten.
“The word ‘forgotten’ really summarizes why I wrote the piece. The experiences of Colin’s life and death were so powerful on my entire family that I feared time would dull the memory, and I refused to let that happen. Even now, 23 years after writing it, reading “Lest We Forget” triggers recollections, both wonderful and sad, (and usually flowing tears) that have changed my life – almost exclusively for the better.
“As difficult as it was to write, it was a total act of love – primarily for Colin, but equally for his mother, for me and his four siblings. It is now, and will remain, a family treasure.
“Whenever anyone reads ‘Lest We Forget’, I believe that Colin somehow comes back alive, and that makes me very happy and very proud. How privileged I was to have a son like him! I love you, little buddy!”
OneDublin.org: As an extension, why do you feel that it is important for your students to write a reflective essay in the course of their studies?
Willis: “Too often, our educational system merely passes on facts and/or skills. I am not denying the importance of such, but, ultimately, I think my job as a teacher is to help students to think and, especially, to become better people.
“Here is a statement I typically made the first day of class: ‘If at the end of the semester, you are the perfect English students – you are voracious readers, your vocabulary has increased extensively, your writing is clear and precise, you make no mechanical writing errors, etc. – , but you are filled with less self respect because of this class and/or less respect for your fellow students, then, in my opinion, this class has been a failure for you, and I have probably failed you as your teacher. Somehow, the educational process has to do much more than make us smarter; IT MUST MAKE US BETTER PEOPLE. If it does that, then the world is a better place. What happens between these four walls over the next few months will, hopefully, educate OUR minds and our souls.’
“I would then ask the students to reflect on the above statement and then write a reflective essay about their own personal growth (or lack of such growth) from some significant life experience.
“As you can probably guess, I received some amazing responses, and many, many students told me it was probably the most powerful, yet most demanding, assignment they had ever been given.”
OneDublin.org: Student mental health is a significant subject that currently occupies many school districts. You were generous in sharing your experience with a specific student that offered tickets to you and your wife Claudia to the stage production of “Les Miserables.” Please share what this experience meant to you.
Willis: “All of us, and, in a special way, most teachers, want to make a positive impact on the lives of others. I know I have done just that in my 40+ years of teaching, but it was never clearer to me than in that case. She made it very clear to me that what I said in class on a particular day actually prevented her suicide. She informed me of that in a letter on an occasion when she also presented me with two “thank you” tickets to the Les Miserables musical/opera in San Francisco. Since then (more than two decades ago), we have seen each other multiple times, and she is happily married, has a daughter and a son, and has dedicated her professional life to the education of children.
“This shows how important what we say and do can be in affecting others. I had no idea that the day I spoke about suicide in her class would turn out to be SO important, but what a gift it turned out to be for her and for me. I think it’s very possible that the main purpose of my being an educator for over four decades “happened” on that very powerful day! I am a very lucky man!”
Clearly, this story took many twists and turns. We did not anticipate talking about the tragic loss of a young life, but it literally turned into a celebration that scores of students have been able to experience. We thought that the initiation of a former DUSD student into the DPIE board would be sufficient, but he has much higher designs on his contributions at Valley High School. And, we were able to effectively touch upon the very large issue of student mental health as it exists in 2015. It is a little dizzying to grasp, but we are so grateful for the contributions to this profile. OneDublin.org would like to thank both Joel Simone and James Willis for lending their voices and wonderful insights.
Information on the Easter Seals fundraiser in the name of Colin Willis can be found at: https://diablovalley.design/product/doorway-fundraiser
Jim Willis’ Tribute to Colin Willis can be found at: http://jimwillisca.blogspot.com/2009/06/lest-we-forget.html