Not all lessons in the classroom come from textbooks. Sometimes they come from special teachers, professionals such as South Whidbey’s Erik Jokinen.
Jessie Sanders, a former South Whidbey student, learned such a lesson when he was in the seventh grade. He once told Jokinen that he didn’t have his homework because he was from a dysfunctional family. Jokinen showed empathy, but told the then-young man that his environment is not what defines him — his choices do.
“I’ve never had positive family role models; growing up has been hard with my family,” Sanders said. “He told me I was falling into a trap using circumstances for an excuse to not do my best. It was the best advice I ever got.”
The entire community benefits from teachers such as Erik Jokinen, according to parent Karyle Kramer, also a teacher. Although he is a physical education, or PE, teacher, Erik truly teaches life, she said.
“He’s positive and caring, and holds a high bar,” Kramer said. “Our community’s kids are faced with complex challenges. Having Mr. Jokinen as a teacher and role model impacts them way beyond their middle school days.”
A tough childhood
Jokinen, his wife Colleen and two children live in a home they purchased as a fixer-upper. They renovated it themselves, together building a playhouse, playground, garden, greenhouse, and more recently a sports court for both their family and the community to enjoy.
“My whole driver is my family first,” Jokinen says in his fast-paced and body-animated manner of speaking.
He’s a natural storyteller, and even does voice impersonations.
Jokinen’s philosophy is to impress on young people to stay active, healthy, be kind to others, and be grateful for any kindness shown to them. They shouldn’t allow adverse environments or circumstances to define them or be an excuse to become a stumbling block. Even bad role models are teachers, he said, and they show students what not to do.
“I feel for kids today, and some of the home lives they have [are] tough,” he said.
Reflecting on his own upbringing, with some humor, Jokinen said he worked from age nine to fifteen, 365 days a year.
“I woke up at 4 a.m. to start my paper route before going to basketball practice and then school,” he said.
In the summer he also rode his bike 10 miles to work full time at a golf course.
“I had to work to buy food and my school and sport necessities,” he said. “My parents were alcoholics and unable to hold down a job. We were always getting evicted for not paying rent.”
They moved at least 30 times, and usually to “flop houses” or a rented room in an old hotel in bad parts of town. He said he can laugh about it now, and reminisced about a family activity that he and his dad did making paper airplanes out of the Yellow Pages.
“We flew them out our hotel room window onto the busy, seedy street below, until the manager banged on our door,” he said, shaking his head and smiling with the memory.
When Jokinen was a teenager, his parents were able to move into ‘somewhat of a house’ and they bought a $50 car.
“My dad took me out for a driving lesson one time in his old Chevy, three-speed column shift — ‘three on a tree’ — with a worn-out grinding clutch,” said Jokinen, as he gets up and pretends to drive and perform the story with laughter.
“The driver’s side door was bungie-corded together; I had to hold the door with one hand or it would swing wide open, with my other hand on the wheel.”
The street was visible through a rusted out floorboard, and the tires were as “bald as a balloon.”
“When I turned a corner, my dad yelled, ‘Hey! You just made me spill my drink.’ That was the end of the driving lessons,” he recalled.
At times, the family lived in a car and often went hungry. He said his father once swallowed his pride and they all walked to the food bank. Upon arriving home, opening the two bags of groceries was like Christmas.
Through this upbringing, Jokinen said he wanted to make certain he did not live like that as an adult. He made a choice to educate himself, and improve his own life. To this day, he said he doesn’t take anything for granted, even food.
“I gained a work ethic from all my jobs that has stayed with me,” he said. “I know if I want something I have to work for it. I realized everyone is modeling something even if it’s what not to do.”
The right place to be
Jokinen instructs students to find positive role models through people they meet or read about. He’s said he’s grateful for having coaches and teachers that were great role models. Through them he learned he had a shot at life despite his circumstances at home.
He once told his coach he had to quit the team because he couldn’t afford the expenses. Right on the spot, the coach took out his checkbook, and said, “How much you need?”
Jokinen didn’t take the money, but the offer and the lesson it contained stuck with him. To this day, he remains grateful for education and teachers and coaches that kept him on the right path.
“Because of them I wanted to become a teacher to help students too,” he said.
When he came to South Whidbey for an interview and met with then-Principal Greg Willis, he knew right away this was where he wanted to be.
“Greg really went to bat for me,” he said, while pounding his heart. “It was one of those heart moments, and I knew I was supposed to teach here.”
Young people today have a lot to deal with, said Jokinen, and many struggle with feelings of entitlement, such as for material objects like an iPod or for special treatment. And it isn’t just a youth problem — some adults feel the same way, he said.
“I believe this is the single greatest issue facing young people today,” he said.
The perfect teacher
To those who know him, Jokinen and his experienced-based approach to teaching are a great asset to the South Whidbey community.
“Erik rocks,” said Shelly Ackerman, president of the Parent Teacher Association. “He is the perfect teacher because he is such a great combination of fun and no-nonsense.”
Jokinen is the guy behind so many of the unique PE unit offerings, she said. He spends his personal time applying for grants, looking for used deals and sales, taking the equipment home to repair and fix.
“He shows the kids a variety of activities, and inspires fitness for life,” she said.
South Whidbey Elementary School PE specialist Craig Stelling calls Jokinen ‘Superman.’ First, he’s a strong and respected family man. As a coach, he’s blazed innovative programs, Stelling remarks.
“Just a few of Erik’s unique South Whidbey Middle School offerings are windsurfing, kayaking, roller blading, rock wall climbing, and bicycling,” he said. “Erik provides workshops, and state-level PE clinics.”
Jokinen says kids need to have fun and some healthy excitement too.
“Today they are so bubble wrapped and coddled, they will look for the wrong kind of fun if we adults don’t offer up some healthy fun,” he said. “I get passionate about fun fitness for kids; I want to spread the gospel of activity.”
“Teaching is just an extension of my own immaturity,” he laughed.