Mr. Kester

"The Oracle of Wisdom", my husband John calls him.

He says it in jest, but Keith Kester, long time middle school history teacher, somehow makes you believe he has all the answers. The kids believe it anyway. And really gullible first year teachers.

Mr. Keith Kester
Kester arrives at Grand Island Central Catholic in 1981, a skinny boy in a too-big tie proudly carting a brand new briefcase. Just graduated from Doane University, Mr. Kester's a serious young teacher. The shiny briefcase is an emblem of professionalism, and Kester - just a tiny bit intimidated by the hundreds of sweaty, hormonal adolescents pouring into his classroom - holds his students to strict accountability.

"If I hear any of you talking," he announces that first day in a quaking voice, "you will write one hundred sentences after school."

Before the end of the year, however, Mr. Kester is noticeably relaxed. He ditches the briefcase along with the tie, and by Christmas he's enthralling kids with stories of the most fascinating hometown in the world - Cambridge, Nebraska. Population 1038.

Cambridge, according to Kester, boasts the most talented high school football team ever to dominate the Class D arena. A lake near the Kester farm, where Keith grows up with his brothers, reportedly conceals the body parts of several dozen murdered persons in its murky depths. And unlike every other farm kid in the world, Kester and his brothers raise a house pet - a baby deer who sleeps with them and occasionally shares their bath water.There's no place on earth like the shining mecca of Cambridge, Nebraska.

In his history class, every kid remembers the famous Civil War battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac - probably because in the middle of a lecture, you never know when Mr. Kester might zing a bouncy ball all the way to the back row or tip you backwards in your desk. Who knew social studies could be so tantalizing?

Mr. Kester, 1983
For the last 37 years, Mr. Kester has inhabited his classroom at the end of the second floor hallway. With his rock solid demeanor and kindness, he makes every Central Catholic student feel safe. Those students include the ones he coaches in football and track. His exceptional coaching skills earned him the Grand Island Independent Coach of the Year honor in 2004. It was more, however, than just skill on Kester's part. His gentle patience strikes a chord with every athlete and student, and kids would do anything for Mr. Kester.

"He really is the nicest guy," senior Tommy Childers says. "In my four years of track, I don't ever remember him yelling at any kid."

Except once.

Senior Dave Pilsl recalls two years ago playfully punching freshman Jake Herbek. The two were causing a commotion as they boarded the bus for the district track meet when Dave was suddenly aware of a big hand clamping his shoulder.

"What the..." Dave turned in surprise. Coach Kester, looking uncharacteristically ferocious, glared down at him.

"This is not a good day," Kester said very quietly, "to tick me off."

That was all. Dave and Jake went meekly to their seats and never uttered another word. The shock of seeing Mr. Kester angry has remained with both boys to this day.

In the end, no kid ever wants to disappoint Mr. Kester. The guilt alone will kill you.

"The thing is," Tommy McFarland echoes his senior classmates, "he's so good and so positive. Even when you lose, he somehow lifts you up. Coach Kester just wants us to compete and to do our very best."

For a long time, Kester wasn't fully aware of his importance in students' lives. It wasn't until kids had been out of school for many years that he understood his impact. Now adults, those students nevertheless remembered the feeling of camaraderie in his classroom, talking about their favorite baseball players before school started, and coming to him for comfort when a grandparent died or parents divorced.

"Teachers always hear about the impact you're supposed to make on kids, and you always hope you're making a difference," Kester says. "But when lots of those kids who'd graduated and moved on with their lives started coming back to visit, that's when I understood."

Mr. Keith Kester, center, with a few of his eighth
grade students.
Recently, he says, four former students came back to pay him a visit at school - Victor Garcia, Ken Ramirez, Jenny Green and Austin Walton. Another former student, Kevin Kowalski from Kester's very first eighth grade class, recognized Kester at a track meet and stopped to thank his favorite old teacher.

"To see those kids again and to share those memories -" Kester shakes his head, "it's something I'll never forget."

Kids don't realize, Kester says, how important they are to their old teachers. "Simply seeing a former student walk through the door of my classroom reminds me why I love being a teacher. I love hearing what they've done with their lives, to see how they've grown, and to know how much our school has helped them."

Unbelievably, some of those returning students are parents and even grandparents. They tell Mr. Kester they have never forgotten his kindness, his gentleness, and his enduring belief in them.

Most important of all, they've never forgotten the vicarious thrill of being tipped backwards in their desks to nearly lose their lunch.


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