After an already long and established teaching career in Coeur d'Alene in 1999, Dr. Bill Proser was far from finished.
He knew students needed more of a challenge to help them reach their full potentials. He understood that many of them had lost interest. He was prepared to initiate a no-nonsense learning facility where hard-working students could set their academic goals as high as they wanted.
That's when Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy became a reality.
“I taught English for 25 years at Coeur d’Alene High School. When Lake City opened I went there, so I’ve been at both high schools. I had so many kids who I thought were bored out of their minds at school," he said, seated at a desk in his classroom.
"Why is it we’re so successful at football? It’s because a game is a way of making something hard for the fun of it. If you catch a pass now and run to Post Falls, nobody’s going to cheer, but if you’re against 11 guys who want to knock your head off, and you can get 100 yards down, people will stand up and cheer," Proser said. "I don’t see any difference between athletic competition and what should happen in a classroom.
"There are great questions that are universal, that everyone wants answers to, and what I try to do is respect the conflict of opinion in debate. I have great respect for how smart kids can be. They have an untapped potential."
At the end of this semester, Proser will be retiring from 43 years of teaching and stepping back from Charter a bit. But even in retirement, he's still not done.
"I’d like to still help guide the school, perhaps in a different position," he said. "Also, the first day, I’m probably going to look for work.
"One thing I do want to express is my gratefulness to the patrons of this community who gave me a job when I didn’t have one," he said. "I came here with the idea that I’m going to pick the place in the world I’m going to live and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to live here, so I feel very fortunate and grateful that I’ve been able to make a living in Coeur d’Alene, because it’s a beautiful place and now it’s home.”
You founded Charter in 1999. Why? And how did it all come about?
“It was touch and go. Nobody wanted us. We had to go through our own school district to establish the place in the beginning. The vote was very close and very contentious. They said, ‘Why do we need it? We already have college prep.’ And the answer I gave in the board meeting is, ‘You do, but you suck at it,’ which was not politically correct. That’s not my strong point. So I don’t think they’re very happy with us to this day, but there it is.”
Charter has had a while to put down some roots and be a place where people want to send their kids. How do you think a charter academy has impacted this community? “I’m going to leave that for other people. I think our results speak for themselves. This is fascinating to me: In the 20 years we’ve been in existence, neither the Albertson’s Foundation or the National Department of Education, or the State Department of Education or the Coeur d’Alene School District has ever or ever will ask us, ‘How did you do it?’ They don’t want to know.
This could be duplicated anywhere in the country. It’s like the Vietnam War — we have the means, we don’t have the will; the Communists had the will, they didn’t have the means, and they won anyway. I don’t think it’s rocket science. You get good teachers, you let them do their job.
What I say is, ‘What does the kid need to know to do great in his college physics class? Teach him that.’ For instance, I remember sitting in 15-person committee meetings trying to decide on which textbook. Now, what textbooks do — because it’s standardized curriculum all over the country — I remember the one I was looking at, it took 60 pages out of ‘Moby Dick’ and said, ‘We’re going to expose kids to this literature and that literature’ and they put that together in a 50-pound book that nobody pays any attention to because you couldn’t possibly understand 'Moby Dick' from 60 pages. You have to read it from page one to the end, understand that it’s Biblically based, you know, and you have to know your Bible pretty well to understand it and then it’s a great read.”
Where was the very first school you taught?
“Sherwood High School in Oregon. That was ’73 I think.”
When did you start your career in education?
“I came here from, believe it or not, Australia, I was playing baseball and I had a teammate who said he went to college in Moscow, Idaho, and I didn’t believe there was any place in the country named Moscow, so he said, ‘Put Coeur d’Alene on your list when you go back to where you want to live.’"
Why did you get into education?
“Because I had terrible questions about theodicy, for example. How can there be a good god and evil in the world? I developed a very definite interest in the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel has said — he’s considered the voice of the Holocaust — 'Not only do we not have answers, we don’t even have the right questions yet.'
So I don’t think the implications of that event have been realized. Our modern philosophy to me is primarily existential: God is dead, the world is absurd, there are no objective standards for anything. And you can’t, at least I can’t, go to the gates of Auschwitz and use what I would call relativity to make any comment whatsoever. You have to shut up, you can’t even use the word ‘wrong.’ If you say, ‘That’s wrong,’ then it’s a fair question to ask, ‘How do you know?’ That’s where the discussion begins.”
Why is the Holocaust something that interests you?
“It’s the clearest example of evil I can think of, and it’s also historically based. I used to get into a great deal of trouble because I would come into the classroom, especially at Coeur d’Alene, and deny the Holocaust for three or four days, seriously.
The office would get calls and people would be upset and all that kind of stuff because what I had to get across first is that it’s historical, it’s based on facts, and facts are only interpreted through a worldview that you already have, a presupposition. Once I have taught students that they can’t possibly deny the history of it, then it’s possible for them to start asking the relevant questions. But if they buy the fact that it never happened, there’s no answer to that argument. It’s an obvious answer, but the presupposition you accept to start with controls the rest of how you view things.”
As you step toward this new chapter in your life, do you look back and think, ‘I’m so glad we implemented this,’ or, ‘I’m so glad I touched this one student’s mind?’ Something you’re really proud of?
“Yeah, this school, and I have to give half the credit to my wife because she’s the one who called parents and stuff, I wouldn’t do that. If you want to send the kid, great, if not, see ya.”
What about this school? You've built quite the legacy here. “I can’t take the credit for it. It’s the faculty that makes the difference, it’s the teacher that makes the difference, that's my opinion.”
Do you have any plans for retirement? Will you be traveling?
“I’ve been selected to go to a Holocaust conference in Seattle, the Holocaust center over there, which is always exciting for me. I’ve had the chance to travel to various seminars. I don’t think I told you about my trip to Poland with 45 American teachers and Holocaust survivors.
That was in ’94, I think. We did three of the death camps and then flew to Israel with people who were heavily involved with building the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
From the time we got on the bus, it was highly organized to go to the airport in New York. There was a lecturer who stood in the front of the bus, giving us a lecture on the background of Poland and so on. And then, when he got off the bus, a survivor would stand up and say, ‘He’s full of crap, this was the way we saw it.’ Many different survivors, many different accounts. And traveling to the actual sites was extremely meaningful for everybody who took the trip. They all described it as life-changing. It just altered their perception so much. That’s where Vladka Meed comes in, she was the one who organized the trips and helped pay for it.”
Do you have any lasting thoughts for our community as you step away from Charter a bit and retire from your position?
“Mainly gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity. And I’ve obviously had some great kids, and they generally come from great parents.”
BIO BOX Birthday: August 23 Born and raised: New York City; raised in Bucks County, Penn., Kingston, N.Y. and Beverly Hills, Calif. Family: Wife of nearly 47 years Dee Education: B.A. in English from Pacific University in Oregon; master’s in English from Arizona State University; master’s in education from University of Idaho; Ph.D in educational leadership from Gonzaga University Favorite book: “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville Favorite film: “The Godfather” Favorite food: Pizza Best advice you’ve ever received: “Brush your teeth and do the best you can” Personal mantra or philosophy: “I think we’re all searching for the truth” Historical person you admire: Vladka Meed, the heroine of the Warsaw Ghetto Hobbies: Studying the Holocaust