Students plan a special gift for favorite teacher who’s driven the same car for 30 years

For the past 30 years, a plucky and fiercely committed history teacher rolled to class in a 1996 Saturn, a battle-scarred chariot of public instruction he affectionately called “The Saturn,” or sometimes, “Old Girl.”

Their daily commute to Chapel Hill High saw five presidents occupy the White House, enough time to break The Saturn’s air-conditioner, mess up several of its door locks, leave deep scars in its green paint and put 300,000 miles on its odometer.

“She knows the road so well, I don’t have to drive her,” said Bill Melega, who happily endures the teasing. “She just pokes along and gets there. When you’re at a stoplight for too long, you have to run the heater while she rumbles and jumbles.”

So now that Melega is retiring, the last of his students are raising money to replace their favorite teacher’s artifact of an automobile — a car that no longer exists, lovable only to a historian, so antiquated it predates his students’ birth by more than a decade.

A teacher who ‘grabs your attention’

With a little help, they will slightly repay the historian who put them on the battlefield at Gettysburg, showed them Mecca as Muhammad knew it and described an Aztec marketplace as an ancient IKEA.

“He is energy,” said Jill Berman, a substitute teacher whose daughter Lyla started Melega’s Gofundme page. “He grabs your attention. I think everyone would say he makes the kids feel like they were there.”

It takes only a few minutes watching Bill Melega’s podcast to understand the kind of devotion that would inspire teenagers to buy their teacher anything, let alone a new car.

He delivers his lectures without notes — no jotting on whiteboards, no clicking PowerPoint slides. He paces the classroom speaking uninterrupted except the occasional question or nosebleed, explaining the origins of Islam in the same tone you might use to describe a funny encounter on the bus.

Consider this sample, in which Melega gives the prophet Muhammad and the archangel Gabriel the voice of high school sophomores:

“So Muhammad is like, ‘Wow he’s speaking to me in my language. This is awesome,’ and Gabriel says, ‘You, Muhammad, have been chosen,’ and he’s like, ‘What? I’m just Average Joe. I’m just a regular everyday dude.’

‘No no no no no no, Muhammad, you are not. You have been chosen to rise up and warn your fellow Arabs about their paganism and their immorality. They are straying from the teachings of God, like Moses was saying, and Jesus was saying. You, Muhammad, are the last in a long line of prophets. You are going to get your people to worship the one true god, Allah. That’s what have been picked to do.’

‘Well, why me?’

“Because Allah picked you, Homes.’

After roughly 6,000 days in the classroom, Melega can still trace his desire to teach to a moment in the third grade, watching Mr. Carlow mesmerize the class with The Age of Discovery. It wasn’t global navigation as a topic so much as Mr. Carlow’s presentation, delivered in the loving detail that only a Navy veteran could summon.

“I didn’t know what an astrolabe or a sextant was,” Melega recalled, “but he got so into it. I looked around the classroom and everybody was locked in.”

‘Good old Mr. Melega’

This story rings intensely true to me because my father taught history for 30 years, and much like Melega, he ranged from AP-class valedictorians to discipline problems reading at a third-grade level.

In the beginning, my dad brought his guitar to school, wrote plays for his students to perform and inspired kids who wrote him Christmas cards well into their own adulthood. Toward the end, he felt hampered by petty administrators and abandoned by students he could no longer reach. In all that time, I estimate he drove about 20 cars.

But Melega kept up better, adapted more, started recording his lectures in podcasts and YouTube videos. “If you guys are going on a long car trip,” he said, “just pop in good old Mr. Melega, and if your parents don’t fall asleep, you’ll be there in no time.”

He also offered nighttime classes for adults and led a multitude of out-of-state field trips, especially to Civil War battlefields, where he held teens’ attention with stories of Joshua Chamberlain — the famous schoolteacher from Maine.

“”The kids always love Gettysburg,” he said, “but it’s not Pickett’s Charge. That’s cool in its own right, but we always stand on Little Round Top. Joshua Chamberlain. The Confederates came up the hill and Chamberlain had 300 guys. Three hundred Average Joes just changed the fate of the country.”

A faded Star Wars sun screen sits on the dash of Chapel Hill High history teacher Bill Melega’s 1996 Saturn.
A faded Star Wars sun screen sits on the dash of Chapel Hill High history teacher Bill Melega’s 1996 Saturn.

The campaign to raise $20,000 stood at roughly $5,000 by Friday, so the students are counting on a late surge to purchase more than a replacement jalopy. Melega knows all about their effort to bring a teacher the world’s shiniest apple.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked. “It’s kind of humbling, kind of embarrassing at the same time. You teach hard. You take care of the kids. If they think this much of me, I’ll just take it and run with it.”

Here lies The Saturn, aged 30 years, a champion always, a good old gal gone to her reward.