The year was 1982. Hair bands were in, guys (former head of high school Dan Neukom included) still wore shorts that would be deemed a bit too short by today’s standards, and history teacher Sue Nellis was finishing her University of California, Davis student teaching credential at Casa Roble High School in Orangevale.
Nellis and her husband, Mark Gorton, a recent graduate of Pacific McGeorge School of Law, frequently played tennis.
It was at one of these sessions that Nellis would hear about the school to which she would dedicate 36 years of her life.
“There was a hiring freeze at San Juan (Unified School District) at that time, so I couldn’t go to Casa Roble even though the principal wanted to hire me,” Nellis said. “So then my husband’s law partner asked, ‘Have you tried Country Day? My son went there for years.’
“I just said, ‘Country what?’”
Although Nellis had lived in Sacramento for only four years and had no experience with independent schools, she was undeterred.
“The very next morning, I went to the phone book,” Nellis said. “I called, and they had a history job.”
Dan Neukom interviewed me — in his running shorts. He came over right away because he only lived across the street — it was all just so ‘Country Day.’”
And although Nellis has been a ubiquitous figure in the school’s history department for decades — having taught seventh grade, eight grade, 10th grade, 11th grade and AP U.S. History — she almost avoided the subject as a career path.
“When I graduated from high school and started (at Whittier College), I thought, ‘I don’t want to do history — I love this, but I want to see what else is out there,’” she said. “So I took a bunch of different classes, but I kept coming back to history.
“Examining the histories of all these different ethnic groups was the greatest part of college.”
This love of nontraditional history pushed Nellis through her first year, when she started teaching ninth grade world history — a class she wouldn’t return to for over 30 years — and eighth grade U.S. history.
At that time, she said, every teacher juggled multiple classes and electives between both middle and high schools. Nellis’ roles extended outside of history classrooms into art studios and gymnasium courts, as she taught middle school stained glass, jazzercise electives and badminton.
She experienced more “Country Day moments” as yearbook adviser, a role she held for seven years.
“I did yearbook up until I had Jared (Gorton, ’08), and I had him three weeks early, right before the yearbook deadline,” she said.
Nellis gave birth on Easter Sunday, right before the 1989 deadline, and she left her son at the hospital to help her students finish up.
“It was crazy,” she said, shaking her head and smiling.
But she said her craziest, and best, times at Country Day were traveling.
“All my travels were great opportunities for me to grow as a person and make a lot of really great friends,” Nellis said.
“I had never been to (Washington), D.C., until I took the eighth graders there, and then I went four or five times. I’d never been to Italy until I went with (Latin teacher) Jane Batarseh and (former AP art history teacher) Kay Schweitzer.”
“All my travels were great opportunities for me to grow as a person and make a lot of really great friends.”
In addition to visiting, Nellis said she treasures her opportunities to see plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, kayak in the Pacific Ocean and explore Old Town Havana, Cuba. But not all of her adventures have been as peaceful.
“I spent my 30th birthday skiing for the first time in my life with the eighth graders,” she said. “It snowed five feet in Bear Valley, and we had to dig ourselves out of the cabins it was packed so high!”
Although Nellis said she loves traveling, the classroom — especially teaching and preparing lessons for AP U.S. History, where her “passion really lies” — is what she will miss the most.
“I’m going to miss my interaction with the students and my colleagues,” she said. “I’m not going to miss the grading; I’m not going to miss some of the meetings.”
To stay connected to Country Day, Nellis put her name on the substitute and AP exam proctor lists. Nine juniors have already asked her to write college recommendation letters.
“I don’t think I’ll have another professor like Ms. Nellis,” said senior Josh Friedman, the 2018 recipient of the James W. Weatherholt II Excellence in History Award. “Something funny happened every lecture that she either played along with or encouraged.”
Friedman has a list of these quotes, including, “Two-thirds of America was lit” (in reference to the advent of electricity) and, “Those who get cholera die, and that’s OK.”
Thanks to Nellis’ tutelage, Friedman and others have been encouraged to do research, which Nellis says is her primary goal in teaching.
“If you read the news at all and you want to know about elections and things politicians say and specify what’s true and not true, you need to be able to try to determine the legitimacy of sources,” she said.
“I’m interested in making sure that juniors, who are going to be voting, have a good sense of our history. I don’t care what political party they belong to — or if they don’t belong to a political party.”
Through all the quips, research projects and ruthless document-based questions, Nellis said she strives to bring history alive.
“If I can somehow relate it to their current lives, their future lives, the lives of their grandparents, that’s what makes the difference,” she said. “When we get into modern history, I hear a lot of kids saying, ‘Oh yeah, my grandma remembers that.’
“It can also help answer some questions on Jeopardy.”
—By Chardonnay Needler
Originally published in the May 28 edition of the Octagon.