Students at Hesperia Junior High School are used to VIPs stopping by.


But there are VIPs, and then there are VIPs.


"Are you, like, the head of all the schools in California?" a seventh grader asked the man at the head of the entourage that had materialized in his class Wednesday afternoon.


"That's what I tell my wife and daughter," grinned Jack O'Connell.


It's not far from the truth: As State Superintendent of Public Instruction, O'Connell is the man ultimately responsible for the education of the state's 6.3 million public education students.


"And I know them all," he said, still smiling.


An arm shot up.


"I bet you don't know my name," a blonde boy countered.


O'Connell, who was in Southern California this week for the California State Universities board of trustees meeting Wednesday and a Thursday meeting of San Bernardino County school superintendents, had stopped by the school as a favor to a friend.


"My mom is a really good friend of Jack's," said vice-principal Amy Kernan. "He was at her house last weekend and I called."


Kernan's mother put O'Connell on the spot: "She asked why he'd never come by and visited on school. So on Tuesday, I got an e-mail from his scheduler that he was coming today."


An experienced politician -- in 2002, O'Connell received more votes than any politician in a contested race in the country, even beating Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's tally -- he worked each of the classrooms he took in on his tour. He fist-bumped knuckles offered by students, fielded questions asked by reporters for the Roadrunner Review, the school newspaper, and pushed students to go to college and pursue a career path he described as "the most important job in the world."


"Who teaches doctors?" he asked students in one classroom.


"Teachers," the students replied.


"Who teachers lawyers?"


"Teachers."


"Who teaches business people?"


"Teachers."


"Who wants to be a teacher?" O'Connell, raising his hand. "Is this working yet?"


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.