Ryan Pemble’s favorite T-shirt read: “There’s no crying in math class.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t tears shed in the Belen High School teacher’s classroom; it just meant he helped get you past them.
“He was amazing. When you had him as a teacher, half the time you couldn’t stand him,” said fellow BHS teacher Tarla Hill. “His students would moan and groan and complain. He expected you to strive for perfection and you were going to work for it. And he would help you get there.”
Shortly after beginning his 24th year teaching at the high school, Ryan died suddenly of unexplained causes on Oct. 13. He was 50 years old.
“We don’t know what happened that night,” said his sister-in-law, Rosa Armijo-Pemble. “We won’t know for another six, eight weeks.”
Ryan grew up on the family homestead in Grants with his younger brother, Brandon, and their four cousins.
“He was always super intelligent. When he was little, he’d get a calendar and if you gave him a date, he’d tell you what day of the week it was on,” said his mother, Cheryl Pemble.
She recalled when he was in the fourth grade, Ryan had read everything the teacher gave him, including material above his grade level. Eventually, the teacher had nothing left to offer him except the encyclopedia. Ryan read that, too.
After graduating from Grants High School in the top 10 of his class, Ryan went on to The University of New Mexico, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a chemistry minor, and a master’s degree in special education.
Cheryl said he initially was going to be a lawyer, because he loved to argue, and thought about sports medicine before pursuing special education.
Ryan’s own experience in school seemed to be what drew him in that direction, said his brother, Brandon.
“He had worked in a group home for adults and there was a young man there who had special needs,” Brandon said. “He got to thinking about kids who are labeled. He was in the gifted program in school and those kids are always labeled. So I think that’s why he went into special education.
“He had patience for kids. No patience for me, though. He always told me, ‘You knew better,’” Brandon added to the laughter of his family.
Hill said Ryan was a fierce advocate for inclusion of students in the special education program.
“He believed in complete inclusion of special education students with their peers, not have them isolated in separate classes,” said Hill. “He wanted them in his class. I think those kids were hit hardest.”
His family describes Ryan as someone who was always there, willing to drop everything to come help, whether it was helping build a house, cheering at a soccer game or just relaxing for a family Christmas.
He was the uncle who brought the cool fireworks, gave his niece and nephew the privilege of being his only trick-or-treators and taught his son everything he knows.
“I learned how to see things from a different perspective. He understood you can’t always do things one way,” said his son, Josiah, 16. “There are multiple ways, so you find the right way and go forward. He taught me everything.”
While he was teaching Josiah, Brandon says Ryan was still learning himself.
“He was smart but had no mechanical aptitude,” he laughed. “He called us a lot, borrowed a lot of tools.”
In fact, Brandon bought him a set of tools for his birthday in August; he kept track of the things Ryan borrowed and bought him those.
“He was learning,” Brandon said.
Josiah said he will put his father’s tools to good use.
Rosa said many people in the community have expressed concern about Josiah, and she wanted to let people know he is with family and being taken care of.
“I have a big support group from my family,” Josiah said.
After 18 years of friendship, marked by football games, wrestling matches, teaching and fierce debates, Hill says Ryan will be truly missed at BHS.
“He was right across the hall from me. I haven’t been able to go back to my classroom yet,” she said. “When he was teaching, I can’t explain the feeling you’d get when you walked into his room. The students would be so engaged. He would go group to group, and sit down with them, talk to them.”
As the head of the math department, Ryan helped guide the department through and complete a rewrite of the curriculum.
Hill said he also loved to teach across disciplines, bringing the science lessons she was teaching into his lessons and exercises.
At BHS, Ryan taught inclusion classes all the way up to pre-calculus, and tutored students to help them prepare for ACTs and other standardized tests.
“He was always there to help before and after school,” said Misty Torres, a BHS teacher. “The success of the students was his motivation. Not only was he a mentor to his students but he also took time to help out new teachers.”
Ryan was always trying to improve student success at Belen High School inside and outside his classroom.
“He supported his students in every way he could — talking about their future plans, practicing their music or even going to their sporting events.”
Ryan was also part of the Upward Bound program through The University of New Mexico-Valencia campus, and served on the Eagle Leadership/High School Redesign committee.
An educator and student champion, Ryan was also a talented musician, playing lead guitar in the Belen band Salvaged for many years. Band mate Robert Noblin first met Ryan in 2012.
“When we first met, Ryan and I could not stand each other,” Noblin said with a chuckle. “It took a good six months to get past the musical machismo, trying to one up each other musically.”
After that, the two became fast friends, he said. When Noblin thinks of Ryan, it’s his generosity that comes immediately to mind, Noblin said.
“He was generous with his time. He was never on a time limit when it came to talking with someone. He was generous with his music and provided music at so many events,” he said.
Noblin said he has many memories of Ryan, the only person who ever called him “Rob,” but the best ones were of their jam sessions.
“When just he and other local musicians would come to the house and someone would throw out a random tune and we’d all just jump in,” he said. “Those are the best memories I have of him.”
There will be private services for family and close friends, and a public celebration of life from 5-7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 1, at the Valencia County Fair Grounds, in Belen.
The community is invited to bring a lawn chair and picnic meal, to share memories of Ryan and listen to and play some music.
“It’s what Ryan would have wanted,” Rosa said. “We want to share his life and maybe hear what we didn’t know about him.”
For information about the celebration of life for Ryan, contact Rosa at 250-2982 or [email protected].
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.