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Youth in Custody teacher retiring

Published: Sunday, May 26 2013 11:25 p.m. MDT

Tom Huddlestone rides his Harley in Sandy, Monday, May 6, 2013.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

MIDVALE — After three decades on the job, Tom Huddlestone will retire next week as a teacher at Hillcrest High School, where he has served as the school's version of Mr. Kotter.

Talk about a tough act to follow. How do you replace a Harley-riding, karate black-belt wearing, former army sergeant who has served as mentor to hundreds of troubled youths?

Huddlestone, a trim, fit 64-year-old, has overseen Hillcrest's Youth in Custody Program since it began. He opened the program in 1981, charged with teaching and mentoring teens from as many as five high schools in those days. His students are a mix of kids who are in state custody either because of criminal behavior or because of family issues that caused them to be removed from their homes.

It is revealing when Huddlestone says, "I had a lot of kids from JJS (Juvenile Justice System) in the early years, but then it went more to kids from DCFS (Division of Child and Family Services). It's either because of what they've done, or they're just victims of their circumstances. They've bounced around foster care and in and out of a lot of schools. The majority are here because of family problems — they've been abused or neglected or their parents are in jail."

Huddlestone teaches them a variety of subjects while providing a small, personal class experience for kids who would get lost in normal, overcrowded classes. The kids have come and gone and left their mark on Huddlestone during those three decades. As the family unit has eroded in America, he has dealt with the aftermath on the front lines.

He mentored one boy who entered the DCFS system when he was 8 and by the time he was 17, he had been placed in 45 different homes and institutions and both parents were in prison.

He taught and mentored one girl who had been abused in an orphanage and then by a family that adopted her.

"She told me, 'I just want to be part of a family,' " says Huddlestone. "She was supposed to be adopted by the family she was living with, but the family changed their minds. She was crushed. I thought about adopting her myself, but a male adopting a female is awkward. I can't stand to see a kid who just wants to be in a family and doesn't have one."

The girl, who was suicidal, came to class crying one day. Huddlestone spent most of the day talking to her. She was so distraught and frustrated that Huddlestone finally took her to the gym and had her hit a punching bag.

"She thrashed on that thing for a while," says Huddlestone. "I wouldn't have wanted to be on the end of that. Finally, she dropped her hands to her sides and said she felt better. At the end of the day she walked out of here smiling."

Huddlestone, who is divorced, has no children — unless you count the kids he teaches, and he does. "It's one sad story after another," he says. "The first four or five years I took a lot of that stuff home with me. I had to conclude that once you leave the building, there's not a lot you can do."

The sad stories go on and on. There was one boy who was weeks away from graduation and had recently been allowed to return home to live with his mother. Then he was charged with stealing a car — for about the 35th time — and was sent to prison.

"I was deflated after that," says Huddlestone. "All the good things we had seen happen. … He's a three-time loser now – he's been back to prison two more times."

Huddlestone became a friend and counselor by default in this job. There are times when his class reminds him of the old "Welcome Back, Kotter" TV show.

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