One teacher, one conversation

She was raised by a loving but strict and religious father.  She studied hard, not wanting to disappoint him. He worked long hours, so she often came home to an empty house and studied alone.  From the time she was fourteen, she had a job and bought her own things.  At fifteen, she started to see the world differently than her family did.  She felt torn between conformity and a growing desire for independence.  But to talk about her feelings outside of her family felt disloyal. 

And then a single conversation in Cynthia Castillo’s 10th grade English class changed her life.  In the assigned book, the heroine was clashing with her parents over values, a conflict that resonated with Cynthia. She found herself raising her hand in class.  All the questions that had been nagging at her, the feelings of isolation and conflict that she could not express personally, were somehow possible to ask when they were about the character.  What if you had different values than your parents?  Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  What’s true here?

 It was a supposedly academic question framed as literary response. But instead of launching into a textual analysis, the teacher stopped the class right there.  Let’s talk about what’s really true here, the teacher said.  Who here fights with their parents?  Who clashes about values? The whole class put down their books and talked.

For the first time, Cynthia remembers, the class had what she calls “a real conversation.”  It wasn’t about the book any more.  It was about the actual experience of kids like her who were, she saw for the first time, also struggling with feelings of isolation and conflict, torn between pleasing their parents and finding their own identities.

She realized she wasn’t alone.  After that day, she began to express herself more. She realized that literature made it easier to talk about the things that really mattered, even the difficult ones–loneliness, heartbreak, anger, fear—because literature gave you a little distance, it gave you characters, it gave you the safety of not necessarily talking directly about your own life.  It let you channel your feelings into the rigor of a discipline.  She started taking Drama classes, throwing her emotions into the characters she played.  She found that she loved being onstage.  She blossomed academically and attended UCLA.

She realized she wanted to become a teacher.  One teacher changed the course of her life.  What if she could do the same for others?  How many quiet kids were out there, feeling isolated and afraid to speak out?

Today, Cynthia Castillo teaches English at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Central Los Angeles.  Slender, with glasses and long hair to her waist, she looks young enough to be a student herself, though in fact she is close to thirty.  The school serves the local neighborhood, but offers some of the qualities of a “choice” school because it’s broken into three pilot schools, each with a separate mission and focus but all under the umbrella of community action.

Cynthia’s school-within-a-school is called RISE, for “Responsible Indigenous Social Entrepreneurship,” whose goal is to “empower and qualify students to be transformational agents in a local and global economic world.”  Like Cynthia, most of the students are Latino/a, though about 17% are African-American.  Because the school is new, there are no data on poverty levels, but a WASC report on the nearest school indicates that 70% of neighborhood families live below poverty level. 21% of children are in foster care.  In all of L.A. county, that area has the least number of adults who have attended college.  The neighborhood also has the highest level of violent crime in L.A., especially homicide, which is the most common cause of premature death.

It is not an easy gig—partly because of the school’s success.  Before Augustus Hawkins was built, gangbangers tended to drop out of school, but with the new, community-oriented model, “now gang members are coming to school,” Cynthia says.  A gang truce in place, the school works hard to keep violence from igniting.  Still, they struggle with tagging and with keeping gang members in school till graduation.

She gets to school at 6:45 in the morning, works till evening, takes a break for an hour for dinner with her boyfriend (“luckily he’s a teacher, so he understands”), then grades and plans till 9:30 or 10 at night.  With 44 students in a class, there’s no time to slow down.  But she’d never switch to an easier job in a higher-income community.  “I need to teach here because it helps me understand all the systems of the world,” she says.  “In the world, the majority of people are poor.  The majority are people of color.  The majority are trying to find work and stay out of trouble.”

And despite her top-flight academic qualifications, including a Master’s from UCLA, she’s not interested in being a two-year wonder who leaves the classroom to work at a think tank.  In her sixth year now, she dreams of being a lifelong teacher.  “Teaching keeps you forever young,” she says.  “I want to be in my sixties and still connecting with kids.”

In my next post, I’ll talk about her class of 44 kids and the overwhelming challenges she faces every day, as well as my second epic realization about teaching.  But for today, I’m left with questions:

I’m a big fan of very detailed lesson plans.  In fact, I often had my lessons planned moment by moment.  But all those days when I stuck to the plan, how many chances might I have missed to change a student’s life?  What if all those years ago, Cynthia’s teacher had stuck to the lesson plan?  What if the conversation that changed Cynthia’s life—the off-topic, non-academic and personal conversation—had never occurred?  What about the students in Cynthia’s class today who might be inspired to become teachers themselves—what would have happened to them?

As a teacher, I used to ask myself if I was good enough.  Now I wonder if I was asking the wrong question.  Maybe I should have asked: did I listen enough?



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