Lessons Learned, Appreciated with Smileys

James Smiley with grandsons Will (left) and Jimmy.
James Smiley with grandsons Will (left) and Jimmy.

By Brandon HENSLEY

A man is never a success until his kids have outpaced him. That’s a saying Jim Smiley, a popular teacher at Crescenta Valley High School, threw out one afternoon inside his classroom perched on the third floor of the aging 2000 building. It was late May, a week before another graduating Falcon class would be sent off into the real world.

The class of 2015 is different, though. This one includes Smiley’s oldest son, Jimmy.

This past school year meant a great deal to Smiley, a former CV basketball player and coach. It wasn’t just Jimmy with him, who spent a semester in Smiley’s sociology class, but also his youngest son Will, who was a freshman. There were times during the day when Smiley would get a glimpse of his boys without their knowing, and sees the kind of men he hopes they’ll become.

“It makes me proud for me and my wife. The concept of family means a lot,” Smiley said.

When Smiley sits behind his desk he’s surrounded by photos, either framed or pinned to a wall, dozens of snapshots, including those of his wife Mashitah and of his Falcon family – coaches and students alike. So it’s no surprise when he walks out of his class he looks to the people in those photos who surround him in his daily life. Jimmy, though, won’t be around every day anymore. He’s off to Whitman College in Washington State to play baseball and focus on engineering.

Jimmy just finished a great run on the CV baseball team, which advanced to the CIF semifinals for the first time since 1998. In the semifinal loss to Mission Viejo, he had a two-run double, which accounted for the only Falcon runs. As a junior on the mound last season, he didn’t allow a run during the Pacific League season.

Jimmy also played varsity basketball for two seasons, providing a tough interior presence for Coach Shawn Zargarian’s team. Now the attention will shift more toward Will, a more gifted basketball player than Jimmy, but who will focus more on his own burgeoning baseball career.

“I’m really excited to have the next few years maybe be a little more about him, and have the spotlight on him for a while,” Smiley said of Will.

Jimmy said he’s given Will advice along the way.

The Smiley family has enjoyed a closeness that may change with Jimmy (shown here against Ventura) heading off to college.  Photo by Dan HOLM
The Smiley family has enjoyed a closeness that may change with Jimmy  heading off to college.
Photo by Dan HOLM

“Your whole academic and athletic career matters over four years,” Jimmy said. “I’m trying to convey that to him right now, and he’s done a pretty good job.”

Will may take those words to heart, but there’s one thing above all he’s taken note of living with Jimmy all these years.

“Be organized,” he said, “because he’s not organized.”

The boys actually shared a room for many years, even though they didn’t need to. They finally separated because their bodies grew too much to occupy the same space.

Smiley recognizes they aren’t 6 and 8 years old anymore. That’s where his quote about a man’s sons outpacing him comes into play. He feels both kids are on the right track, and spending time with them anywhere and everywhere makes that obvious.

Last summer, the three of them took a trip to the east coast to help Jimmy look at colleges. On the trip they visited numerous minor league and major league ballparks. There wasn’t a favorite moment for Smiley. Seeing his boys bond made him think about the next step, about what kind of people they’re turning into.

“Favorite is not the right the word, because it causes our minds to hierarchically rank things. There were too many things that were beautiful to rank them,” Smiley said.

Not that the boys don’t compete with each other. Will has a shot to make the varsity baseball team next season and, if he doesn’t throw harder than Jimmy already, he throws at least as hard.

“It’s almost for bragging rights,” Will said. “I love him, but it’s that competitive spirit.”

One other saying Smiley is fond of: Do your best, and the rest won’t matter.

Smiley’s father James passed away last October. Smiley took it hard. In a nutshell, many of his photos he shares now on Facebook are captioned with, “Great time with the family … wish my dad were here to share it with us.” Jimmy said the family had to step it up around his dad during the time James was dying and in the mourning of his death. Smiley was taking care of everyone, including his mother Gerry, but everyone else had to rally around him.

“We did everything we could for my grandpa. He died. It’s fine, because we did our best,” Jimmy said. “There were no regrets. I carry that over to my life. You do the best you can, you practice hard, put in the work for school … if you don’t get the hit, or the ‘A’ on the test it’s okay because you did your best.”

Smiley didn’t know how he could endure the rest of the school year. His students ended up surprising him.

“The way the kids in the classroom were so thoughtful and giving was overwhelming. I wasn’t aware of the support that’s here from the students,” he said. “It made me grateful. Maybe I’ve done something right by my parents to see that kind of support.”

For most of their life, Jimmy and Will would have breakfast over at their grandparents’ house before school. In those times at the breakfast table, Grandma and Grandpa wouldn’t judge them in any conversation. They were their biggest fans, just there for support in any way possible. The boys still drive over to Gerry’s after school.

“We enjoy it,” Will said. “We enjoy giving her support. We need it, too. We love seeing her.”

So the Smileys don’t have the elder James anymore, and Jimmy is bound for another state in a couple of months. All Smiley can do is take the lessons he learned from his parents and coaches, and turn around and do the same for people he loves. It doesn’t matter where it comes from or how it comes out. The important thing is that the message gets through.

“I don’t think it’s because he was a coach or a teacher,” Jimmy said. “I think he just wanted me and Will to be good people. He wanted to raise us, in his mind, the right way. And it’s worked out.”