Dec. 12 was a quiet milestone in Mike Smith's 35 years in education.


"It's kind of surreal," he said, sitting in his Mojave High School vice-principal's office. "This is the last Monday of my career with kids."


He hadn't started out wanting to be an educator. He had originally hoped to parlay his baseball skills into a coaching job at the junior college level, before one of his mentors had told him just how few jobs were available.


But Smith had been good with kids, and a school up in the Victor Valley took a chance on him, fresh out of school and ready to give teaching a go. But in January 1979, Hesperia Junior High School was a less than ideal first job.


"That school was rough," Smith said.


The students were sure their new physical education teacher wasn't going to last, and did everything they could to drive him away.


Smith wasn't having it, and told them in no uncertain terms: "'You guys are not driving me out of here. I'm here to stay.'"


"I loved it anyway," he said. "I just liked being around kids."


Smith was prepared, in part, by growing up in a large, rowdy family.


"We had five brothers and one little sister and we were little hellions. I was the saint," he said. "I think I liked that spontaneity."


In the end, though, his students were right, after a fashion: He only lasted 3 1/2 years as a teacher, because he was needed elsewhere.


"I was loving what I was doing," Smith said, "but we had a principal who was disappearing two or three days a week." It forced the assistant principal to take over for her, and Smith ended up stepping in as, effectively, the acting assistant vice-principal of discipline. "Nobody knew where she was goin'."


It turned out she had secretly taken a job as an assistant superintendent in another district and was splitting her time between the two sites. She was allowed to leave the district, but now Hesperia Junior had to replace its principal and assistant principal the temporary position became a permanent one for Smith.


"I thought, if I ever had the opportunity to effect change around here, I'm going to take it," he said.


Smith's 33 years in what would eventually become the Hesperia Unified School District took him as a principal or vice-principal at six different schools: Hesperia Junior High School, Hesperia High School, Ranchero Middle School, Sultana High School, the adult education center and Mojave High School.


"It's hard to believe," he said. "It's come and gone."


His final years were spent at Mojave High School, where he was engaging directly again with kids on a daily basis for the first time in years.


"That's probably the most rewarding thing," Smith said. "Kids come up to me and say, 'Do you have any idea what you did for me?'"


Kids haven't changed, at heart, over his three decades in education, although he worries about the influence of digital culture.


"Kids will always be kids," Smith said. "I think, unfortunately, they've become less responsible. ... Too many excuses. I believe manners is a lost art, overall."


Smith is retiring on Jan. 6, some 33 years after he started as a green physical education teacher at a rough-around-the-edges Hesperia Junior High School, ready to take on new challenges with his wife in a wide-open future.


"It's been an incredible ride," he said. "I've met some incredible people, met some incredible kids."


Beau Yarbrough may be reached at (760) 956-7108 or at beau@HesperiaStar.com. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Hesperia.Star.