A teacher’s continuing education

OMCA entrance

The Oakland Museum of California offers art, history and natural science exhibits on three floors.

Editor’s note: For this year’s second guest blog post, I looked south — to a new friend in a familiar place. I grew up in Northern California and the first place I lived was Oakland. So why not invite a former Portlander who’s lived and worked in the Oakland area for many years to contribute a piece?

Emily Zell is the older sister of Alexandra, a longtime friend and personal training client of my wife. Her younger sister’s partner, Brian, is a member of my bowling team. .I figured Emily’s perspective as an educator who underwent rigorous training to become a museum volunteer would offer an interesting take on retirement. I was right.

By Emily Zell

You never know what retirement will bring. I retired after 27 wonderful years of teaching knowing that I would be able to fill my days: art, exercise, friends, family and some travel.

In the beginning I met each day as it came and one January morning, six months after my official retirement date, a flier arrived in the mail from the local museum: Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). It is a three-tiered facility offering art, history and natural science, each with its own floor.

emily zell

Emily Zell

The flier advertised a training for Gold Rush Guides, a six-week course. I was interested in the museum, but wanted to be an art docent. The yearlong training program for art had just completed. Another one would be offered in three years. I decided the shorter training would at least give me an idea of what the museum was about. I’d pick up the art training when it came around again.

I had little interest in history in school. I knew plenty of friends who were history geeks and prided themselves in knowing the dates and locations of battles. Given my druthers, you would find me painting, knitting, cutting material for a quilt or hiking with my camera. Reading about history or visiting a history museum, I don’t think so.

Surprisingly, six weeks flew by and soon I was handed my Gold Rush Guide badge after completing written exams, six practice tours and ending with one official observation. Training covered California history from early days of the Native Americans to post-Gold Rush.

Who would have thought, but I found myself fascinated with all this history; the myths from the Indians, the stories from the miners — I loved it all. I learned how to act out everything from weaving woodpecker traps to gold panning to give my tours to the fourth graders some punch.

I had spent close to 30 years in a classroom preparing lessons, figuring out students’ learning strategies, making accommodations to those with learning challenges and then presenting information to students over the year.  Here at the museum, I was prepared for much the same progression. I had studied the material. I had contacted the teacher who asked for the tour and learned about the students’ needs. I made adjustments to my tours accordingly.

Twice a week for two months, I took groups of fourth graders through the Gold Rush gallery. It is important to remember that the artifacts at OMCA are authentic: the wooden gold pans from South America, the placer gold from the actual gold fields, the scale to weigh the gold from China, photos carried by the miners who came from Europe and the East Coast.

(Click on photos to view captions.)

By June the Gold Rush program was over and I needed more history input. I signed up the next History Docent training the following September and hung out in the history gallery during the summer to keep my skills sharp. I regularly shadowed docents during the summer who led adult and family tours.


Fast forward a year and I am a full-on History Docent who can tour the entire gallery from the ethe early days of the Native Americans to the settlement known as Google in the Silicon Valley. I have taken a college-level California History course, written more papers, taken more exams and had more observations to earn my blue plastic badge. I was now “legal” to tour adults in any part of the gallery.

This is when my experience changed from the teacher delivering information, the tour guide telling about the artifacts, to a human receiving learning at its highest level — from those who had walked through their own stories and were willing to share.

My first ah-ha tour was in the bay called the Dust Bowl. There is a 1931 Model T Ford. It is piled high with the possessions of families leaving Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and other states.

An elderly woman in a wheelchair is examining the front of the Model T. I come over to see if she wants to know about the display. But she doesn’t need me to tell her anything, because this car is her story. She was a little girl during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Her family was leaving Arkansas and it was her job to fill the canvas bag that hung off the radiator to keep the engine cool. Whenever the car overheated, it was her responsibility to fill the bag again. If the jug with the water went dry, she had to borrow water from others along the trail. It was my first “first-hand” story to tuck in my memory to share with other visitors.

Her family eventually made it to California but so did 200,000 other people. By the time they arrived, there were no more jobs. It took them four years to be able to return to Arkansas. By that time, she was in third grade. Although she had attended a school in California for those years, she was far behind when she returned to Arkansas. This was my first experience of seeing history through someone else’s eyes.

Here is another story that allowed me to touch history from a visitor’s first-hand experience. OMCA has a piece of a World Airways DC 8 fuselage. The airlines was based in Oakland during the 1970s. Our fuselage was one of the planes involved in the April 1975 Baby Lift from Saigon to bring over 3,000 children to the United States. The infants were in cardboard boxes strapped into the seats. It is a very intense story to tell visitors who were not alive during those years.

One day while in the gallery, two couples came in and asked if there was an airplane in the gallery. I walked them to the back where the DC8 is stationed.

They circled the fuselage in silence, sat in the seats, got up and talked among themselves. They didn’t seem to want to ask me anything, but I stayed nearby and finally asked about their interest. These four 40-somethings had been part of the Baby Lift. They had come to the United States on possibly this plane, and their fathers were all American GIs and their mothers Vietnamese.

They were on their way back to Vietnam for the first time. This was their first stop on the way back to their homeland. There were tears in their eyes, I wished them well and left them to be with their past — and their future.

EZ.operation babylift

Tiny travelers: The Amerasian infants crossed the Pacific Ocean in cardboard boxes strapped into the airline seats.

A year later, I met one of the flight attendants who accompanied the children on several of these flights.


emily zell at OMCA

Emily Zell: Retired teacher, lifelong learner.

It has been five years this month since I walked through the gates of the Oakland Museum of California to see what it held for me as a retired teacher.

The visitors have now become my teachers. Everyone who comes through the doors has a story. Sometimes I fill in the facts, but it is the story that keeps us connected to each other. I am no longer behind a desk, I am out in the world.

Photographs: Emily Zell, Oakland Museum of California

Emily Zell was born and raised in Portland. She graduated in education from Portland State University in 1971. She migrated to the Bay Area in 1977, raised two daughters and taught elementary school. Among other things, she works in her art studio and writes a blog called Herstory.


5 thoughts on “A teacher’s continuing education

  1. Great job!! We are so happy to have you! I agree that photo of the babies in the airplane needs to be on display with the plane. Proud to be your “docent mate”. Alma

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