My favorite teacher kept handcuffs in the top drawer of his desk.
They’re still there, left over from his impressive career in the Portland Police Department before becoming a teacher about 15 years ago.
Bill Ridge is a middle school social studies teacher at Holy Cross School in South Portland. He teaches world and United States history, geography, economics, historical novels and Latin. When he’s not in the classroom, Ridge coaches the middle school girls basketball team and is the school’s athletic director, assistant principal and technology guru.
After 15 years of teaching at the school, he was named the 2023 Catholic Schools Teacher of the Year late last month.
“It’s always nice to be recognized for the work that you do, and it’s an affirmation that you’ve been doing the right thing, but it’s not what motivates me,” he said.
Instead of awards and praise, Ridge said the best confirmation that he’s doing something right is the calls and emails he receives from former students updating him on where they are and what they’re doing, whether they’re still in school or beginning careers of their own.
I was a sixth-grader at Holy Cross School during Ridge’s first year of teaching, and I admit I was a little scared of him when we first met.
He was physically imposing — especially to a sixth-grader — with his booming voice and commanding presence. But my classmates and I soon found Ridge was especially kind and invested in each student’s success.
His expectations of us were high, and he challenged us, but Ridge made it clear a student’s worth doesn’t hinge on academic achievement.
What makes Ridge an excellent teacher isn’t grand gestures or inconsequential things that win popularity points with students. Instead, Ridge takes the time to build a relationship with each student and crafts engaging and informative lessons.
One of my favorite lessons Ridge developed covered the civil rights movement and Vietnam War using the music of the time. We dissected the lyrics of songs including “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel (I still remember all of the words), “American Pie” by Don McLean and “War” by Edwin Star.
While Ridge has a talent for teaching, he didn’t adopt the career until he had retired from the Portland Police Department in 2008 at the age of 48.
Ridge had joined the department in 1985 as an overnight patrol officer in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood and “loved every second of it.”
He was transferred to the department’s detective bureau in 1988 and specialized in child abuse cases. Though it was emotionally demanding and tough at times, Ridge found it rewarding to speak with the children and earn their trust in order to help them.
“I didn’t mind arresting people who had abused kids either,” he said. “It was like the ice cream you got at the end of a hard day at work.”
He rose through the ranks over his 25-year career in law enforcement until he became deputy chief in 1998, a title he held for 10 years before retiring in 2008. He retired on a Friday and was in his new classroom at Holy Cross School the following Monday morning.
“I loved every minute of that job for 25 years, but I haven’t missed it for a second,” Ridge said.
His first experience with teaching came when he was asked to instruct a criminology course at St. Joseph’s College in Standish. He taught one course each semester for eight years while still working at the police department.
Ridge later earned his teaching certification to teach seventh-12th grade social studies while still working at the police department. Though he initially thought he’d teach high schoolers, he said he “wouldn’t give up middle schoolers now for anything.”
While others warned him not to teach middle schoolers because “they’re horrible human beings,” Ridge said he has found them to be sweet and is fond of every one of his students.
Middle school-aged students spend every minute of every day scared they’re not smart, pretty, popular or athletic enough, Ridge said. They’re also at an age where teachers can have a lasting impact on them if they work to earn a student’s trust and respect, he said.
“The relationships you can form with students last for the rest of their lives,” he said. “I like when I run into someone I haven’t seen in years and we can hold a good conversation because of the relationship we built when they were in seventh grade.”
No matter how quiet or introverted a student is, each leaves fingerprints on Ridge’s classroom.
A rack of blue and gold neckties — Holy Cross’s school colors — littered with student signatures hang on Ridge’s classroom wall. Eighth-graders sign a new tie on their last day of school and Ridge wears it during their graduation ceremony before it’s added to the rack.
Similarly, Ridge paints a new circle in alternating blue and gold paint on his classroom wall with the year stamped in the middle and eighth-grade students sign the wall before they graduate.
Fifteen years worth of artwork and gifts from students fill every available shelf and cover Ridge’s classroom walls. While some items are more traditional, nothing is too odd or unusual — if it mattered to a student, Ridge kept it.
On a shelf in a corner sits a brick named Bruce that a student carried around every day for a year, then gave to Ridge upon graduation. A tiny snowman made of fossilized stuffing named Doug that students made in December 2009 perches on a nearby ledge.
More than a decade later, Ridge remembers which student gave him each item and the stories behind them.
At 63, Ridge admitted he doesn’t know how long he plans to continue teaching, but he knows he loves coming to school each morning.
“No matter what’s going on in the world or what the latest crisis is, as soon as I can walk into a classroom, close the door and be with a class of students, it’s a good day,” he said.
As for the handcuffs, that remnant of his former career never leaves his desk drawer.