"I did so much thinking about what kind of person I wanted to be. Did I want to be the person that is rude to others or a Mr. Schlitt? I want to be like him."
It was one of those moments no teacher wants to hear, ever: “Mr. Schlitt, I am going to drop this class.” And for Jeremy Schlitt, a veteran with 17 years in the classroom, it came out of the blue. From a student who, until that moment, he would never have expected it.
For Jacob Johnson, the moment was a bit of a surprise, too. It was his senior year at Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, Wisconsin. And of all Jacob’s classes, third- and fourth-period Cabinetmaking was the highlight of his day; a welcome break after a morning of heavy stuff: first-period math, then English.
Jacob is the kind of person who’s much happier working with his hands than sitting through lectures. “That’s what I love to do.” And so he looked forward each day to the big woods lab, with its planers, band saws and lathes; the big round air ducts hanging from the ceiling; the lumberyard smells of sawdust and cut wood.
He’d sit down with anticipation at one of the big tables, waiting for Mr. Schlitt to tell the students what they’d be working on that day.
For a student who describes himself as “mostly a knucklehead,” this was a class where he excelled. And here was a teacher who spoke his language, who delighted in his enthusiasm. “I’d ask him advanced questions,” Jacob recalls. “And he was just super excited that I was so interested. He’d talk to me any time I needed help.” Eventually, Jacob says proudly, “if other students had questions in the class, because he had helped me I was able to help them.”
So, what happened? What led Jacob that day to stand up in front of the class and announce that he was calling it quits?
Looking back, both teacher and student say it was a learning experience for both of them. And for Jacob, the way his teacher responded was a “defining moment from my senior year of high school.” A moment that led him to a deep conversation with himself — about school, “and about what kind of person I wanted to be.”
"He kept my head on straight."
Arrowhead is by any measure one of the best high schools in Wisconsin. More than 96 percent of its students graduate; 87 percent of those graduates go on to four-year colleges. It regularly shows up on prestigious rankings — U.S. News & World Report; The Washington Post — of best high schools in the country.
Hartland is just over 25 miles from Milwaukee, yet Arrowhead’s principal, Gregg Wieczorek, says it is not exactly a suburban school — “not when you can look across the road and see cows.” Once, the split between rural and suburban students was about 50/50, “but now the farms have become bigger, and the rural and suburban mix is now leaning suburban.”
Wieczorek has been here for 27 years, and he’s proud of the recognition the students and teachers have gained under his leadership. “We have a really outstanding school all the way around,” he says. In addition to the academics, Arrowhead is an athletics powerhouse, and has strong music, theater, and arts programs.
Significantly, for students like Jacob Johnson, there’s also a full complement of technical education. “Autos, woods, metals engineering — a lot of the schools around us have eliminated or reduced those areas, and we keep on building them,” Wieczorek says.
Modern workshops with the latest equipment and up-to-date curricula enable the school to serve a range of students, from the college-bound on their way to engineering degrees to those heading right into manufacturing and other high-paying jobs. “Obviously, we have kids going to [the University of Wisconsin at] Madison on scholarship. And we applaud that. But we also have students who that’s not where their interest lies,” he adds.
“And Jacob is one of them.”
At a school like Arrowhead, proud of its academics and its awards and accomplishments, it’s deeply important to the principal that those students aren’t somehow overlooked. And connecting with them, he knows, requires great teaching.
There are shop teachers who sit at their desk while the kids are working on their projects, says Wieczorek. Now and then, one of the students has a question and the teacher walks over to look.
“That’s not what Jeremy does at all.”
Wieczorek, who’s been observing teachers for more than 30 years, says Schlitt is one of those teachers who make connections. “My grandma had this ability to make every one of her grandkids feel that he was her favorite,” the principal explains. “Jeremy has that ability to do that with his students.”
When he visits Mr. Schlitt’s class, “every time I go in there he is on some piece of equipment with the kids, or giving them advice and suggestions. He’s not the type of teacher who says everyone’s going to make the same magazine rack.”
“My grandma had this ability to make every one of her grandkids feel that he was her favorite. Jeremy has that ability to do that with his students.”
-Arrowhead High School principal Greg Wieczorek
Schlitt, 38, grew up in Hartford, Wisconsin, about 15 miles north of Arrowhead High School, in a family with teaching in its blood: “My mom was my fourth-grade teacher. I called her Mrs. Schlitt. I had my dad as Econ teacher in high school. Many aunts and uncles. And my wife, Angie Schlitt, she’s an art teacher.”
Schlitt has taught his whole career at Arrowhead, and he’s the varsity tennis coach, too. Though Jacob Johnson says he doesn’t really look like one. “He looks more like a football coach the players do not want to push.”
On the tennis court or in the woods lab, Schlitt says his philosophy with students is: “You put in the time. You try your best. I’ll coach you along, and you’ll learn it.”
In his classes there are students who, at age 17, think they’ll never need to know a particular skill or the principles behind it, but he knows that deeper grounding may come in handy later on.
“Some students, they don’t care for the computer end of things,” he explains. “They’ll say, ‘I just like working with my hands.’ And that’s Jacob. He’s real good with that, but I’m like, ‘Let’s work with the computer; let’s get the design skills.’”
He remembers well the day, in the fall of 2018, that things went south with Jacob. “I had him as a junior, and that junior year we got along great,” Schlitt says. “But then senior year he’s in my other class, and I’m not getting through.”
As both of them tell it, the breaking point came pretty early in the semester over something called a CNC machine. “Computer Numerical Control,” Schlitt explains. It’s a machine that can take dimensions and designs entered into the computer, and reproduce them in wood: the exact dimensions of a cabinet door, detailed engravings and scrollwork, or the letters of a sign.
But to learn the complexities of this machine, and how to operate it safely, required a lot of upfront work for the class.
“At first I was understanding and thinking, ‘This will take a day or two,’” Jacob recalls. But the lessons – sitting at a computer, not the hands-on work he loved, continued. “After our second week of doing it, my patience had run out.”
"I never would have guessed, after all the disrespect I had given him, he would want me to stay in his class."
Schlitt could see it. “He would make some comments — ‘This is boring’ — and it took me off guard a bit.” But this part of the class, while less engaging, is nevertheless important. “In the beginning, to lay the foundation skills, there are demonstrations and lectures that have to happen.” Especially when it comes to safety.
He understood Jacob’s desire to roll up his sleeves and get to work. But, “they gotta have a foundation. It’s another tool in your toolbox, and you’ll be that much more well-rounded.”
As Jacob grew more frustrated — “Can’t we just do it this way? Do we have to use the computer?” — Schlitt kept encouraging him: “I just kept saying, ‘Hang with it, you’ll get this.’”
But Jacob wasn’t getting it. “I was irritated and annoyed, because in a class I was used to having a 100 percent in, I now had a C minus.”
One day he came into class “especially mad” and timed the length of Schlitt’s talk at the beginning of class. “After he was done, I walked up to him showing the time and shaking my head.” Jacob did this every day for the next several days.
Any other teacher, he knows, “would be irritated with the student complaining about them talking.” Finally, Jacob’s frustrations boiled over, and he said it: “I am going to drop this class.”
He remembers clearly what happened next: Mr. Schlitt turned around and said, “I don’t want you to leave.”
And this, for Jacob Johnson, was one of those moments in life. “This threw me off — I never would have guessed, after all the disrespect I had given him, he would want me to stay in his class.”
In hindsight, he says he’s not really sure he was serious that day, about quitting. Jeremy Schlitt doesn’t think so either.
But it was clearly a turning point for Jacob: “I remember having a conversation with myself: So he really did want me in this class, and it’s about time that I show him that I appreciate what he does.”
From then on, “I started coming to class with a different attitude.” He began listening to the lectures, “and after each one he would come over to me to make sure it was not too long.” At one point, “he saw I was struggling so he pulled a stool up and said ‘Let’s get to work’ and proceeded to teach me everything that I missed.”
Did Jacob eventually get it? Understand the CNC machine? “Yeah, he walked me through it and I understood.” Soon enough, the class was on to the fun stuff, the projects and the hands-on work that Jacob craved.
Later that year, for a creative writing class, he and the other students were assigned a paper on “a person who made an influence on your life.” After thinking about it, Jacob decided to write about Mr. Schlitt. “I loved his classes. He kept my head on straight.”
So he submitted the essay that eventually made its way to Honored. Here’s how it ends:
“I did so much thinking about what kind of person I wanted to be. Did I want to be the person that is rude to others or a Mr. Schlitt? I want to be like him. He is a husband, father, coach, and my favorite teacher ever. Thank you, Mr. Schlitt.”
“Awesome,” says Jeremy Schlitt. “I got choked up reading it.” Those words from a student couldn’t have come at a better moment. “Last year, I was coaching tennis, and during the season feeling very stressed out.” He remembers talking one day to his dad about the stress and his frustrations, “and then the next day I got that in my inbox.”
Schlitt says he can’t help but be humbled by it all. “It’s crazy to think that you have that much effect.”
Jacob’s 18 now; he graduated last year. These days, when he’s not out on the lake ice fishing, he’s working with his uncle, drilling wells. “We go to new houses, old houses, houses that aren’t even built. We drill the well … we’re changing pumps … we’re changing pressure tanks in the house. Anything with clean water.”
Never mind doing all that in the cold of a Wisconsin winter — he’s happy. “I’m outside working with my hands, and that’s what I love to do.”
He’s working hard, at a job he’s good at, in a business originally started by his grandfather. Jacob’s been talking with his uncle, and says maybe, someday, that business will be his.
Photos by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Gary Porter
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