Harvey Allen seems as much prophet as teacher, as he leans back in his chair and clasps his hands atop his head.
His gray, Yosemite Sam-like mustache wiggles as he asks the question that has characterized his conversations in recent years.
"Did I ever tell you about . . . ?"
The topics stretch from here to East Los Angeles, where the Westlake High School teacher was born 53 years ago, the son of a Russian immigrant who had changed his last name from Allinikov.
There was the time when, as a burly football lineman at Cal State Los Angeles, he was assigned the role of a bumblebee for his final Modern Dance exam. While dressed in his costume, he had to cross a major traffic intersection.
"The other players didn't let me live that one down for awhile," he said.
There also was the time when he competed in the 1959 NCAA gymnastics championships in Berkeley, and a gymnast named Allen Harvey won the tumbling event.
"Everybody was congratulating me when I got back," he said, shaking his head. "That was one of the tougher ones to explain."
And, as an avid collector of antique watches, there is always time for a watch story. Today, it's the 1940 Gruen Curvex he purchased for 50 cents at a swap meet in Simi Valley that was recently appraised at more than $700.
"But you have to kiss a lot of frogs before the princess wakes up," he said.
As the conversation bends toward the Lakers, the door to Westlake's staff cafeteria swings open. Sunlight beams into the dim room like the smile on the face of the teen-ager standing in the doorway.
"Mister Allen, c'mon!" said the student, in broken English. "You be late! You best teacher. Cannot be late."
Allen grabs his cane and limps toward the doorway. "OK, OK. I'm coming," he said, laughing.
The youth, Matt Huang, is a Taiwanese student in the English as a Second Language courses that Allen teaches. Huang is wearing a Seattle Seahawks baseball cap, given to him by Allen, and tugs on the teacher's arm as the two walk toward the classroom. "Best teacher cannot be late," he insisted.
Allen has taught everything from polynomials to push-ups at Westlake since the school opened in 1978. He even helped coach the varsity football team one season. For his wit and warmth, he has developed something of a cult following among both students and staff, who honored him with a letterman's jacket last year.
"When you think of Westlake, you have to think of Harvey Allen," said Rich Herrera, Westlake's varsity baseball coach.
Last spring, Allen's presence at varsity baseball games was as consistent as the team's performance. Westlake finished 28-2 and reached the Southern Section Division 5-A semifinals, and Allen accompanied the team to a tournament in Las Vegas and playoff games in Long Beach.
Allen said teachers need to show they care outside classrooms.
"A kid might not be succeeding in class, and figures you think of him as a dummy," said Allen. "But if you see them in a different light, succeeding, they see that you care. That's teaching."
During good seasons and bad, Allen can be found at games, standing along the Westlake sideline, despite throbbing pain from arthritis in his right hip. He often leans against a bicycle seat that is attached to a pole.
The seat was a gift from former Westlake varsity basketball coach Greg Hess, who had wrecked his bicycle in a collision with a car.
"I couldn't stand on the sidelines without it," Allen said.
Allen's classroom, where students from 10 countries rely on Allen to teach them math, reading, and science, seems to be its own little world.
Students can count on their teacher, but they also know where the buck stops--"Allen Bucks," that is. Allen gives various amounts of money to students as a reward for class participation. At the end of the semester, students use the "Allen Bucks" to buy their grades.
No money, no grade.
"When they're getting out of hand, I get their attention with a $5 question," he said.
Allen seems to elicit excitement in almost every student who crosses his path. When he volunteered to measure the long jump at a girls' track meet last year, one competitor from Channel Islands High School was so impressed with Allen's encouragement that she leaped to a career-best mark.
"At the next meet, she brought me a plaque, a balloon and a card," Allen said.
But it is generally Allen who makes the lasting impression. When Westlake was in need of students to hold yardage markers at junior varsity football games, Allen offered the help of three Mexican immigrants from his ESL courses who had never before seen a football game.
"At halftime, the referees told me it was the best crew they ever had," Allen said. "They spoke very little English, and watched every move the officials made. They didn't have time to be distracted."
That same crew has now moved up to the varsity level, and Allen provides them with transportation to and from the games.
"He has always had the kids' interest at heart in everything," former Westlake football coach George Contreras said. "Harvey doesn't teach subjects, he teaches kids."
To Allen, it's academic.
"When I look at my kids, I'm thinking that one of them will be the one who finds a cure for cancer," he said. "So I try to treat them with enough respect to get them on their way to doing it."
UP CLOSE: HARVEY ALLEN
Job: Teacher at Westlake High.
Hobbies: Supporting Westlake athletics, collecting antique watches.
On the meaning of life: "There's no secret. It's the search for the secret."
On youth: "Computers are overcoming the kids. They need to stop and smell the flowers, to see what the world is made of. They're no longer recognized for their creativity and ideas."