In a South Gate High classroom lined with colorful surfing posters, teacher John Shearer conducted his annual giveaway of surfing gear to reward students for good grades and attendance.
The students, who gave up their lunchtime recently to attend the drawing at the year-round school, exploded into cheers when Shearer pulled the name of the first winner, Jaime Arana, from among 110 slips of paper in a canvas bag.
Arana, who said he does not have time to go to the beach, nevertheless chose the biggest prize, a Mach 20-XL bodyboard valued at $140.
He quickly cut a deal to sell it to another boy for half the price.
The scholarly looking Shearer, 36, a champion bodyboarder known as "Mr. Chips" on world-class amateur bodyboarding and bodysurfing circuits, said it matters little what students do with the prizes.
"I'm just trying to fire them up as much as possible," said Shearer, who began teaching six years ago when he got tired of painting houses for a living.
At stake in this year's drawing were dozens of prizes worth a total of $750, which Shearer solicited from manufacturers or donated himself. In the last four years, he has given away many of the prizes he won by capturing bodyboarding titles, including T-shirts, high-priced bodyboards and surfing accessories.
Explained Shearer: "Kids need tangible things. If they know that they will be rewarded for hard work, hopefully it will motivate them."
Landlocked South Gate is, in surfing terms, home to "flatlanders." It seems an odd place to give away surfing gear, but Shearer said the students have responded to the incentive: Grades of A in his English and speech classes have doubled, and the overall failure rate in his six classes--as high as 25% in the first two years--has been cut by more than half.
"Many of these kids come from family backgrounds where just being in high school is more education than their parents have," Shearer said. "Consequently, there is a lot of (pressure) from many of their parents for them to quit school and get a job."
Students who earn A's each term get three entries in the drawing. Those with B's get two. Grades of C and excellent attendance each earn one.
Shearer said he came up with the idea after it became apparent that many students did not care if they passed their courses.
"In the first two years here, I had two classes with a failure rate of about 40%," he said. "They just didn't want to do the work. Nothing would convince these kids to try. I did just about everything, including talking to their parents and counselors. It was useless."
Doing well in Shearer's classes is not easy for Latino students, according to counselor Pat Curtis, who watched the recent drawing with pride from the back of the classroom.
"English is the toughest class for them," she said of the students, many of whom spoke Spanish as the drawing went on. "They do their best in math."
According to Curtis, Shearer has given up lunch hours to meet with local businesses to encourage them to donate to school programs.
Standing in front of a table that held dozens of prizes, Shearer, whose blond hair fell across his forehead to touch round, wire-framed glasses, clearly was excited.
Shearer, an amateur who has no plans to turn pro, is forbidden to accept cash prizes for surfing. But he can receive gifts. The items up for grabs included T-shirts from Peru, T-shirts commemorating the Pope's most recent visit to the United States and Ninja Turtles T-shirts.
"He is an amazing guy," Curtis said. "In the sports world he is one thing, but here he is a great teacher."
Shearer grew up in Manhattan Beach and now lives in Hermosa Beach. He rarely misses a day in the surf. On weekdays he battles traffic home from South Gate to get in a few rides before the sun goes down.
In 1985, Shearer won his first over-30 title in the World Bodysurfing Championships. The next year he turned to bodyboarding. In 1987, in Oceanside, he won the first of four consecutive National Bodyboarding Championships for men over 30. He is also a three-time winner of the U.S. Cold Water Bodysurfing Championships, held in Ventura each winter.
"John is a great paddler. He is in tremendous condition," said Joe (Dr. 360) Wolfson, a well-known bodyboarding competitor and surf sponsor. "He gets into the waves quicker than most riders, and he has very good wave judgment. He won't force things. He is smart. He never lets his ego get in the way of getting a good wave."
Shearer was recently chosen to coordinate judging for the Wave Rebel Bodyboarding Tour. Judging will allow him to stay close to the sport for years, long after his reign ends, he said.
"A lot of the younger competitors are approaching 30," he said, "and when they enter my category, it will make it very (difficult to continue winning)."
In the classroom, Shearer looks the part of a teacher. Says Wolfson: "With those glasses and the way he looks, you would never realize that when the guy gets in the water, he is a great white shark."