Teaching at the Deepest Level

Carlos Gordillo will never forget the day he was accepted at USC. He’d moved here at the age of eight from Peru, brought here by his parents who were fleeing the economic implosion of the mid-80’s.

Though he knew no English when he came here, Carlos quickly became fluent.  After testing into gifted programs in elementary and middle school, as a teenager he went to Hamilton Humanities Magnet.  There, Carlos was surrounded by other high-performing, ambitious students, all of whom were focused on getting into elite colleges.  Though Carlos’ grades made him a strong candidate anywhere, USC was his dream school because of its strong architecture program.  When the fat envelope came from USC, Carlos ran to tell his father.  But instead of congratulating him, his father turned grave and sat him down.  “There’s something I have to tell you,” his father said slowly.

That day, Carlos learned that he was undocumented; when the family had emigrated, they had not been able to establish legal residency.  With no papers, Carlos would be ineligible for any federal or state financial aid as well as most private scholarship money. USC’s tuition would be impossible for the family.   So would UC’s and Cal States, which were closed to undocumented students at that time. 

Carlos stared at the envelope in stunned disbelief.  The idea that he had worked all his life for a dream that could never happen was almost incomprehensible.

“Hard work is its own reward,” his father said in an attempt to console him.

But Carlos was devastated. In all their preparation for college at school, nobody had ever discussed options for undocumented students.  The next day in school, he looked at his friends chattering happily about their college options, oblivious to his situation.  The feeling of alienation was paralyzing, an overwhelming culture shock that left him unable to talk to anyone.

When his friends went off to college, he stayed home, lost, drifting from job to job, taking occasional courses at community colleges.  After a few years he was able to get papers that made him a legal resident, but the experience had embittered him.  When he was accepted at Cal State Northridge, he viewed the school dismissively.  “I told myself it was a party school.  I took out massive loans just to party.”

On the day Northridge kicked him out, he met his future wife, Susie.  “That was Phase Three,” he now says with a smile.  Susie persuaded him to agree to let her support him so that he could finish college; though she hadn’t finished college herself, he was closer to graduation.  “I told myself, that’s a pretty big leap of faith,” Carlos says.

Determined to be worthy of her sacrifice, he enrolled at Cal State L.A. and finished in a year and a half.  His plan was to become a professor.  He’d pay for it by working part-time at Belmont High School as a teacher’s aide, a job he found he enjoyed.  He connected with the kids, many of whom reminded him of himself at that age.  The teacher he was helping, Ben Mendoza, became a confidante, taking Carlos aside one day to talk about his life plans.  “You’re a bright guy,” Mendoza told him.  “But does the world really need another college professor?”  The dropout rate at Belmont was 50%.  “These kids need you,” Mendoza said.

The conversation changed his life.  Today, Carlos believes that Mendoza helped him look at his life of struggle and in it, find his true purpose.  “I owe him so much, not just professionally.  He helped me out in every way, personally, emotionally, financially.”

With Mendoza as a mentor, Carlos became a teacher.   Today, thirteen years later, Carlos teaches Special Ed at Roybal Education Center near downtown L.A. in a very low-income community.  As a Latino male, he feels it’s essential to be a role model with whom many of his students can identify personally.   “I tell my students,  I’m you.  I’m from here.  I’m telling you to get out of poverty.  I know it because I’ve lived it.

Though he might once have felt that a high school teaching career doesn’t have the prestige of being a professor, he has no regrets.  “I hold my head high and say thirteen years as a teacher.  That’s something to be proud of.”

Almost every one of his Special Ed students is male; this year, across all five of his classes, he has only one girl.  “These are the kids nobody wants,” he says; in fact, every year just before state tests, he says he’s learned to expect a few new Special Ed kids dumped by nearby charter schools, presumably because these students would lower their test scores, though Carlos is quick to point out that this is only his conjecture.  Though he teaches Special Ed, his syllabus looks like that of a freshman college literature class: Medea, Canterbury Tales, Ibsen.  With a little extra time this semester, he had the kids read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Stunned, I ask him how in the world kids with learning disabilities got through a poem at that nose-bleed height of sophistication.  “Strategies,” he says simply.  “I do backwards planning, graphic organizers, SPQR (a note-taking technique), discussion.  And then when they’re doing class work, I go around and talk to them personally.  I ask them, do you feel like you’re becoming Prufrock? It turns into a counseling session.  They have limited vocabulary, but they can empathize with Prufrock’s loneliness.  I have a kid whose mother has cancer, his brother’s in an institution, his sister is pregnant, and he goes, wow, Prufrock, that’s me.  I could go that way and be all alone like Prufrock but I’m gonna go this way.”

He makes no apologies for the fact that his class is demanding and he does not dumb down his grades.  A lot of his students get D’s.  Some kids think his class is too difficult and so they ditch (making me think of the security guard I spoke to earlier). “Look,” Carlos says, pained, “it’s their decision.  They could do the work if they wanted to.  They don’t want to.  It’s not my job to give them a diploma.  It’s my job to make them a better person.  They’re a better citizen, they’re cultured, they can think critically.”

A strong believer in the Common Core because of its emphasis on analytic reasoning, he pushes kids to “sit with questions,” a skill he believes they’ll carry with them all their lives no matter what their grade in his class.  They’ll desperately need these critical thinking skills to face the challenges of the 21st century as Carlos predicts a massive cultural shift akin to the changes at the beginning of the industrial age.  “I ask my kids, are you ready for a society where most of the jobs you know are automated?  A society where maybe 10% of the people work and the rest are the recipients of that labor?  The people who are gonna be impacted most profoundly are the ones who can’t learn how to use the technology.  I tell my students, you’ve got to become lifelong learners.”

Almost none of his students attend college.  He can think of one girl who is now in nursing school.  Many end up in a program run by the department of transportation, where they’re trained for jobs at UPS.  Some don’t make it to graduation.  I ask Carlos how he can keep going in the face of so much difficulty.  How does he maintain hope for his students?

“I wrestle with myself,” he says.  “But you never know what’s going to happen.  I see kids surprise me.  I see them turn it around.  I had a kid here who graduated in seven years.  I don’t know how many times people wanted to throw in the towel.  The day he graduated, I watched him walk the stage.  He was the first person in his family ever to graduate high school.  I was pretty amazed.”

We agree that I’ll come back to observe his class.  I can’t wait to see the class in action.  I know I’ll learn from his techniques, and in fact, he has already emailed me two dropbox files full of strategies to boost his effectiveness at instruction.

I’m sure these strategies are extremely useful.  But the work Carlos is talking about goes much deeper than strategies.  Talking to him makes me think of the various hierarchy pyramids I learned about in my education program: Bloom’s taxonomy, which categorizes the various levels of thinking, beginning with rote learning at the lowest level and ending with abstract ideas at the highest, or Erik Erikson’s progression of psychosocial development, beginning with trust and ending with personal integrity.

Talking to Carlos makes me wonder if we need a hierarchy of teaching as well, one that begins with basic skill instruction and ends at a deep, human connection about meaning and purpose in life, only I would suggest reversing the pyramid so that the basic skill level is on the top and subsequent levels go narrower and deeper until at the bottom a student digs out meaning and purpose in his or her life, which is what Ben Mendoza helped Carlos find, and what Carlos is now wrestling with his students to uncover.  At the root of this deep teaching is a personal choice Carlos made years ago, to give back when he had so many reasons to cling to bitterness, to find meaning where he could have found despair,

In making the choice to teach, how many lives has Carlos changed?  Will he ever know?  Will anyone?  How do you measure the value of a meaningful life?

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