Bronco Voices: Student-turned-teacher follows his heart — and the arts

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Photo Courtesy John Litten

Drama Teacher John Litten recalls: “I graduated from Northgate in 1998 and on my last day on the Northgate campus, I hid something that at the time was very sacred and very meaningful to me. I didn’t step foot on campus for 20 years, not until I was unexpectedly hired to teach theatre arts. When I came back to school, the very first thing I did was check to see if what I hid was still there…..” Read the article to find out.

Athena Zapantis, Staff Writer

Against all the odds, a beloved theatre teacher made his way back to Northgate after graduating over twenty years ago. John Litten is a 1998 graduate who continued his studies at San Diego State University, majoring in theater. He is now in his third year teaching drama, stagecraft and English, where his enthusiasm and passion for his craft, for students, for teaching and for life seem to take center stage.

Here is a look into Litten’s life, present and past.

What are some classroom highlights for this year?

“Without question the greatest highlight for me would be working with my students. Across the board – in English I, Drama I, Drama II, Drama III, and Stagecraft – I have found that my students have been inquisitive, engaged, hard-working, and ready to create a creative and supportive learning environment. The students exceeded my expectations in every way possible this year and that is a testament to your generation and to the good people who make up our NG community. It has been a joy to work with good natured, quick witted, and deep-level individuals who operate with ease, show tremendous appreciation, easily laugh, take notes to heart, and aim for excellence.” 

And the lowlights?

“Zoom teaching threw my timing way off. Lessons, activities, and certain practices are taking me two, three, sometimes five times longer than usual and I have frustrated myself more often than I care to think about and possibly admit to.  For 20-plus years I have operated and lived my life with a ‘Performance Date’ marked on the calendar. Actors and writers require due dates to keep us in check and to make sure we honor our word as entertainers. Without a due date it’s easy to let the water of creativity flow and flow and flow and flow. At some point, one needs to say, ‘That’s enough flow, time to put up the show.’”

A teaching accomplishment?

“A personal highlight is the ongoing process of transferring theatre classes, English classes, and Stage Craft classes to a brand new format. Among teachers that I hang out with, there is a renewed sense of collaboration and zoom allows me to meet with theatre and English teachers across the country. I’m picking up some crafty tricks, collaborating with individuals who have incredible vision, and am building professional working relationships with people, students included, I have yet to meet face to face.”

A proud moment this year?

“I will say I’m really proud of my performing arts students. We really had to pour the concrete this year and lay a totally new foundation for what is possible in terms of storytelling and creating entertaining products over Zoom. The students did an amazing job.”

What was life like when you were a teen? How different is it from now?

“There are so many universal truths to being a teen that I doubt my experience really differs all that much from what teens during this era are dealing with. I too had to walk the rite of passages that life at your age offers:  the pangs and pleasures of living, loving, losing, and cultivating one’s own truth. I too felt the vice of academic pressures, social pressures, peer pressures, certain insecurities,  and living up to what I thought success was and what I thought success meant.” 

Other differences?

“If differences is what you’re after then I suppose I can speak to this: When I went to Northgate, music was always in the air, especially the parking lot. It was reggae, it was hip hop, it was rock, it was punk, it was metal, it was blues and jazz. Whatever it was – it was loud. Ideas shot around the halls like wild arrows, and art and culture were highly valued and spoken of often. Walnut Creek in general was a very different kind of community. While we worried about our grades, it was equally, if not more important to be invited to a party or social gathering. To be a part of an event, to go somewhere where something significant was happening, to cultivate one’s voice, perspective, and opinion was really a thing and it felt like it mattered.”

Social scene?

“It also all felt more relaxed somehow, less defined, less micro-managed, less regulated. I loved the energy of my era. I loved the homegrown spontaneity. I loved how whims could materialize in a moment.  It was also much more face to face. Without smartphones every social interaction was handled live and direct. You were in a room. You were with a person. You couldn’t hide your identity behind a name card or a post. If you liked someone, you wrote them a long hand-written letter and made them the silliest mixed-tape you could, which could take hours. You’d stuff them both in their locker and then sweat it out until lunch.”

Tech differences?

“If you didn’t know something, you had to wait to figure it out. Nothing was as instant. Gratification came through cultivation. Relationships were built via interaction. News spread via word of mouth. I’m so jealous that you guys have things like spell check. That technology was just coming out when I was in high school! I had to proofread my papers for hours and have my mom look them over for errors. Now it’s all click, click, click, submit. And so it goes.”

A personal highlight in life?

“A personal highlight of my life would be both meeting and then marrying my wife, Pam, who is a kindergarten teacher in Lafayette. She is an incredibly creative and talented person and I consider myself very lucky to have met her. She adds a ton of color to my life.”

Something interesting about you that no one knows?

 I couldn’t believe it because what I hid I hid in plain sight, sort of. Whenever I see it, I think of how many students and teachers, and admin, and staff have strolled past it without giving it a moment’s thought. At this point, it’s been absorbed by the school and is a normal part of it.  It makes me smile because it’s like my 18-year-old self and my 41-year-old self are mischievously connected by some meaningless inside joke. Don’t ask me what it is or where it is…I’ll never tell.”