OAKLAND — Peter Mates made all the boys be serfs for a classroom re-enactment of the medieval feudal system. The girls were lords and knights, except for 12-year-old Abigail Garcia, who landed the best role of all: queen.
In the middle of the lesson — as the serfs sat on the floor and the queen kicked back and ate Skittles — the castles came under siege, barraged by paper balls.
"Our castles were getting attacked, and we had to block it with books!" recalled Kevin Newton, 12, one of the lowly serfs.
The assailant, of course, was Mates himself.
"He's hilarious," said Zoe Sapp, 12.
Whatever the lesson, she said, "He makes it exciting."
Mates, an English and social studies teacher at Oakland's Bret Harte Middle School, was named Alameda County Teacher of the Year last week.
His students say he is funny and kind but also strict and demanding. His principal says she has only beat him to school once in more than three years.
"Did you tell her that I get in your face?" Mates asked Epalehame Kivalu, 12, while the boy was speaking with a reporter.
"He gets in everybody's face," Epalehame said. "He tells me to do all my work and try to achieve more."
Seconds later, Epalehame added, "Sometimes it feels like he cares about my education."
About 12 years ago, Mates sold his downtown Oakland business, Impact Office Equipment, and returned to the profession he tried out in his early 20s — a decision that came with a big pay cut.
Mates has been at the Laurel district middle school since. He stayed in 2006 after the previous principal and nearly half the teaching staff left, and he now helps to train and support other teachers at the school, said Principal Teresa Williams.
He's also a diligent planner. Every Monday, Williams said, Mates submits a typed lesson plan that's about five pages long.
"He brings history to life," she said. "It's like a college atmosphere in there."
Masks, maps, posters and student projects cover almost every square foot of his classroom walls. History books are everywhere. On Monday, students will use clay to fashion gargoyles shaped as human ears to decorate a medieval cathedral of their design.
Last spring, each of his students wrote a story about life in Oakland. Mates turned their stories into monologues and arranged acting lessons for the students through the California Shakespeare Theater. The resulting movie, "Someplace Like Home," plays at 6 p.m. Thursdays on KDOL, the local cable station.
"My goal is to push each kid as far as I can," Mates said. "I have rigorous curriculum, but if they need me, even part of the way, I'll be there for them."