With a buffet of bagels and a booming voice entertaining his teenage audience, English teacher David Hereford runs his class like a nourishing play. Hereford’s classes get a front seat view of his passions — whether anecdotes about Shakespeare or tales from his childhood, Hereford’s narratives supplement anthology-driven grammar lessons. “Storytelling is the backbone of my teaching,” Hereford said. “My students love stories. Who doesn’t?” Hereford, who teaches underclassmen but shared his high school prom story at the senior class meeting, never misses the chance to make a dramatic appearance.
Hereford has nurtured his storytelling ability since his childhood. Born in North Carolina, where his father was stationed in the Marine Corps, he moved to the Bay Area with his mother. In Hereford’s case, it was “like-mother-like-son,” as his mother was also a passionate storyteller, once even acting out every character in Kipling’s Jungle Book on a road trip. “My mother read to me everyday as a kid,” Hereford recalled. “For that, I am eternally grateful.”
Hereford continued to find inspiration from stories throughout his adolescence. Hereford attended Redwood High School across the bay in Marin where, despite a veracious love of the literary arts, he was by no means an all-star student. “I was just an average student who loved to write,” Hereford said.
Reading Ernest Hemingway novels sparked an idea to write his own story using imagery about running away from home. To his surprise, one day his English teacher turned off the classroom lights and began reading Hereford’s story to the class. “I’ll never forget that moment,” Hereford said. “It showed the power of a teacher on your life — that day, I didn’t fade into the background.”
With his knack for writing, Hereford enrolled in California State University-San Jose for journalism, but instead found himself drawn to the stage. His acting teacher compared Hereford’s spark to Edwin Booth, an 18th century Shakespearean actor, who inspired Hereford to act in plays such as Jack and the Bean Stalk, PO8, Black Bart and the Ghost Hour. Hereford regularly visited elementary schools with his crew to perform — it was his first taste of storytelling to children, and he loved the spotlight.
While performing at Luther Burbank Middle School, Hereford stumbled onto a classroom decorated with painted portraits of the students. According to Hereford, the classroom felt like a home, and in that moment, he decided that he wanted to teach in a classroom of his own.
Though Hereford continued to pursue acting, he branched into teaching, earning his English teaching credential at National University and becoming a substitute teacher for local schools such as John O’Connell High School and Everett Middle School. Soon he taught full time at O’Connell, where he became known for helping students craft their personal statements. Because of the passion with which he discussed writing, his students coined the term “crying time” for the writer’s workshops sessions when he scrutinized their essays.
Hereford’s specialty is communicating with his students, something he integrates into his class. “Mr. Hereford’s vivid stories helped keep me attentive and interested in learning,” freshmen Clarissa Wong said.
According to Hereford, there are two things that can transcend cultures: storytelling and love. Hereford attributes the mantra of love to principal Andrew Ishibashi, whom he admires. He applies this philosophy to his classes by giving encouragement to every one of his students. “To be a successful teacher, I’m not allowed to hate anyone,” Hereford joked. “It’s most difficult for students to learn if they believe the teacher dislikes them.”
Hereford hopes to always keep students interested through narrative, while meeting the rigorous and prestigious academic reputation of the school. Sit tight, because Hereford’s show has just begun.
A version of this article first appeared in the March. 23, 2012 print edition of The Lowell.