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Happiness

Posted: May 20, 2009 9:52 p.m.
Updated: May 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 

He can tell you a story about every photograph posted on the walls of classroom M-2.

“This one’s a doctor,” he says.

“That one, he’s a lawyer.”

“She passed away.”

And they can tell you stories about him.

“One day, he dared me to show up to class in nothing but a diaper. If I did, he’d take me to a Dodger game,” a former student recalls.

“We called them Mancakes,” his colleague says.

“I want my children to grow up to be a role model like Chris is,” another former student says.

The connection Chris Mansfield has made to his students and players is unusual.

It’s a connection that began more than three decades ago when a prematurely gray-haired man of average height and weight stepped into a classroom at Hart High School.

Now 59 years old, having coached varsity boys tennis for 29 years and having taught mathematics at the school since 1977, Mansfield is retiring at school-year end.

He says taking an early retirement from a school district under an extreme budget crunch will help to save somebody else’s job.

Yet people don’t want him to leave.

With a melancholy that strains her voice, Jeanne Tong says Mansfield’s departure will leave a huge void.

Tong is the Mathematics Department chair at Hart High.

She has taught at the school for 29 years, almost all of those in the classroom immediately next door.

In 2003, her son, Matthew Taoatao, joined Mansfield’s tennis team and later took his classes.

Taoatao became one of the most decorated prep tennis players in this valley’s history as the three-time All-Santa Clarita Valley Boys Tennis Player of the Year.

“This is really a big loss,” Tong says. “As it gets closer to the end of year, it’s getting sadder. It’s hard.”
Mansfield calls her “Empress Tong.”

It’s a major part of his personality.

“He has always been that way,” she says. “He has a great sense of humor in terms of he’s always positive. He tries to make light of a situation so kids aren’t stressed. That goes for teaching and sports.”

In 1979, Mansfield challenged a boisterous student named Tim Crescenti to show up to class wearing nothing but a diaper.

If Crescenti, producer of the TV program, “I Survived a Japanese Game Show,” accepted the challenge, Mansfield would take him to a Dodgers game.

They went.

“I think there’s something about that that pushed me. ‘Who cares what people think. Go out and have fun,’” Crescenti says. “He did that in tennis with Kelli.”

Push her to be herself, that is, not challenge her to wear a diaper.

Kelli is Crescenti’s daughter.

She became a Hart student and also played tennis for Mansfield.

After the 2006 season, longtime Hart girls tennis coach Steve Love retired.

Crescenti encouraged Mansfield to take the job.

“(I thought Kelli’s) game would improve, but it was an excuse to go out and see him,” Crescenti says.

Mansfield argued that between teaching and coaching the boys team, he really didn’t have the time.

Finally, he relented.

After all, Crescenti had presided over Mansfield’s daughter’s wedding.

“When he finally said (yes), I said, ‘You’re kidding me. You’re going to do it?’” Crescenti says. “My wife and I cried.”

What would compel a grown man to cry about something so simple?

The gesture to Crescenti was more than simple.

Yet the stories that come out reveal that it’s just Mansfield’s nature.

Tuan Dam still has a letter that Mansfield wrote in 1987.

In it, Mansfield spoke of how much he admired and respected Dam.

The letter was read in public by Mansfield at the graduating seniors awards ceremony.

Dam’s father was killed in a car accident in Vietnam in 1976.

That same year, Dam, along with his two brothers, left Vietnam for the United States. Their mother stayed behind.

The three boys lived with a foster family.

When Dam entered high school, he was a basketball player. When he left, he was a tennis player.

Dam was the freshman basketball team’s Most Valuable Player. Mansfield, who had coached his older brothers, Loi and Hoi, encouraged Dam to play tennis.

He quit basketball after his freshman year.

His coaches told him it would be the biggest mistake of his life.

Maybe that’s the difference with Mansfield, Dam implies.

His coaching style is non-threatening. As is his teaching style.

Dam would take his math classes as well.

“When you have him as a math teacher, he will meet you early,” recalls Dam, now 40 and living in Austin, Texas, as the owner of a software company. “He’s never impatient. He really engages the kids in learning and keeps it fun.

“Tennis is the same way. His perspective is really what coaches need to do. He was an encourager, not a discourager.”

Mansfield’s methods of engaging kids are the stuff of legend.

There’s the diaper incident.

Then there are the pancakes.

Near the entrance of classroom M-2 on the eastern part of campus sits a Presto-brand pancake skillet.

For years, Mansfield has been making his students pancakes in class.

“We called them Mancakes,” Tong says.

He’ll even come over and tutor kids for the AP exam.

The deal is, you have to cook for him.

He finds out the dates of his students’ birthdays.

When their day comes, he makes them stand on their desk while the class sings, “Happy Birthday.”

That student then needs to run from Mansfield’s class, through Tong’s class and back into Mansfield’s class, all the while shouting: “It’s my birthday, it’s my birthday.”

It has to be done in 20 seconds.

“All of a sudden, a kid comes running through my room and I’m like, ‘OK?’” Tong says.

“He was really patient with a lot of students,” Taoatao says. “Some don’t pick up math as quickly as others. Math, you either like it or don’t. He’d wait until you understand.”

Taoatao was part of the 2005 team that ended an 18-year drought between Foothill League championships.

Mansfield’s teams won six — 1980, 1985, 1986, 1987, 2005 and 2006.

Taoatao had his own private tennis coach, as many young tennis players with high potential do.

So the high school tennis coach isn’t always as influential in a young player’s career.

In many ways, the hope is that the coach doesn’t screw things up.

But Taoatao says he learned something as important as technique from Mansfield.

“He motivated all of us to work together and cheer each other on,” Taoatao says. “He was the ultimate team coach.”
Maybe that’s why he became the girls coach. Because he couldn’t let the team down.

“That was a new experience with girls,” Mansfield says. “I think that by the end of the season, at least every single one of the girls cried at least once.”

Tong says she thought about bringing the girls together and asking Mansfield to stay.

“I was going to send the girls over crying, ‘You can’t leave, Mr. Mansfield,’” Tong says. “The girls would have gotten to him, and he probably wouldn’t retire.”

Chris Mansfield has between now and June 5 to peel the photographs off the walls and unplug the Presto.

He has a fishing trip in Alaska planned with Dam.

Some 20 years ago, Mansfield attended Dam’s wedding.

Now Dam has four kids who are home-schooled.

He uses a lot of lessons learned from Mansfield.

“I want my children to grow up to be a role model like Chris is,” Dam says.

He’ll keep in touch with Tong.          

Tong says she used to be very strict in class.

She has changed.

“I’ve taken after him,” she says of Mansfield. “I got to the point where if you can’t beat him, join him.”

Crescenti, fully-clothed, will be at his retirement party.

“He’s one of my personal heroes,” Crescenti says.

Mansfield says in retirement he plans to surf more and figure out what day of the week it is.

But he admits that Monday through Friday will be tough.

“I don’t know. I just always loved children,” he says. “I’m one of those who spoiled their children.”

He asks, “What did I get out of it?” Then he pauses. “Happiness.”

cosborne@the-signal.com

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