When I was a kid, I liked being the center of attention and the star on the stage. As I approach middle age, I still enjoy my star turns, but I have found that I greatly enjoy seeing others learn, grow, achieve and thrive. On May 18th, I watched a pair of young men graduate from Rutgers Newark. I was at least, if not more, proud of them completing their degrees as I was of my own graduation from the school of public policy a few days earlier.
My mother taught English at Elizabeth High School from 1987 thru 1999. She would drive an hour each way to work. She loved teaching there and would tell me about her students. She brought me to the school several times during those years. As a teenager, I remember thinking it was very large, a bit run down and full of people that I almost never saw in Hunterdon County. At 5200+ kids, it was the largest high school in America. Forty-six (46!) languages are spoken by students there. It serves a poor, high-minority and largely immigrant population. In the fall of 2006, I began working there as an English teacher (after I finished my MSW in the spring of 2006, there were only two districts that I was interested to teach in – Elizabeth and New Brunswick).
That fall, I had two freshmen classes and one junior class. I taught the freshmen classes for 100 minutes each day. I began each class by playing music for them (Dylan, the Beatles, Beethoven, Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Public Enemy) and having them write in their journals. I taught them poetry and had each class read about 10 books (I gave constant quizzes to ensure that they were reading). I also taught them about history (I’m a certified high school social studies teacher too). During that fall, I told my students that Scott Joplin died of syphilis. They asked me what that was. I was incredulous and inquired about their STI education. All three classes told me they had not received any – so, I spent a day on STI’s (and then included questions on them in a quiz). I also told my students about how I got into trouble as a kid, joined the Army, went to college, traveled the world, taught in Japan and how my friend died from addiction. I told them about my love of hiking and baseball. They teased me when the Vikings lost and would introduce me to new music. Every day was different and almost all of them were extremely rewarding.
Marvin Pineda and Waldys Batista were two students in my freshmen morning class. They showed up early and stayed late. They did all of the assigned work, loads of extra credit and earned straight A+’s throughout the entire year. I taught them (and a few others) how to play croquet after school and on a few Saturdays (they really enjoyed sending me). Waldys would talk to me about his little brother, ask questions about the Yankees and generally served as an ideal role model for other students. He was perpetually calm and laughed at the silliness and zaniness that life threw at him. Marvin was equally bright but a bit more hot headed – he would get frustrated when he his peers weren’t as serious and he didn’t relish when I would correct him on attitude issues or on behaviors that he exhibited in other classes. Marvin was an absolute sponge – he wrote down everything I put down on the chalkboard and many of the things I said. He would spend his lunch period in my room – sometimes he did school work (if I was busy) or he would pepper me with questions about music, sports, English, history or my life. They were the kind of students a teacher dreams about having one time in their career, and I had two of them my very first year of teaching.
Originally, I had only planned on teaching at Elizabeth for one year. I worked as a drug counselor a few nights a week at Hunterdon Drug Awareness after school, but I knew I had to eventually find a full time counseling job in order to get my advanced counseling license (LCSW). Those plans changed when I found out that I would get to teach my two freshmen classes again as sophomores (again, for 100 minutes every day). I had the same 50+ students for a 2nd year, and that 2007-08 year was even more enjoyable than my first year. Waldys and Marvin continued to excel in my classroom, knock off A+’s and grow as writers and human beings. I hung my graduation gown from Rutgers in the front of the room and talked to all of my students about the importance of higher education. After his sophomore year, Waldys transferred to the Upper Academy of Elizabeth High School (basically the honors building) in order to better prepare for college. Marvin decided to stay at Dwyer House for a 3rd year (which would be my final one at EHS) and he took Journalism with me as an elective. Marvin told me about his family – how both of his parents worked two jobs and also served as the superintendents of the building they lived in. It was a grueling schedule that they did (and continue to do) for years in order to give their four children a shot at the American dream. When people ask me how I can work so many jobs or such long hours, I tell them that my schedule is easy compared to the parents of some of my former students (and I think of specifically of Marvin’s parents when I say it).
In the winter of 2008, Junot Diaz visited Rutgers. I had fallen in love with his writing after he won the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I taught all of my students about him and had them read a few short stories from Drown. Waldys, Marvin and a few other students met me at Rutgers Newark the night Mr. Diaz spoke. We hung around afterwards and got to meet with him for about a half hour and took a number of photos. He was extremely gracious and my students were star struck. I was thrilled that they were so excited to meet a writer.
In the spring of 2009, I accepted a job at Rutgers as the new Recovery Counselor. They agreed to hire me part-time at first in order for me to finish the school year at Elizabeth (I will always be grateful to them for that). My last day at Elizabeth was in late June. I cried when I drove away from the school. The next day, I took Marvin, Waldys and Jeremy Alba to NYC to see the Public Library, Grand Central Station, Strawberry Fields and the Natural Museum of History. It was teaching, learning, mentoring and guiding in action. We laughed and joked and I answered the questions that I could. It was a wonderful day.
At Rutgers, I organized and attended about 150+ activities a year with students and alumni in recovery. Marvin and Waldys came along to a number of those activities, including hikes, plays, sporting events, speaking engagements and meals. Marvin transferred to the honors building for his senior year, and both he and Waldys did very well there. In June of 2010, I had the pleasure of attending their (and all of my other students’) high school graduation. A 2009 New York Times article reported that 53% of students in the largest 50 cities in America graduate high school in 4 years while that number jumps to 71% in the suburbs. My students not only graduated from high school, but they had done so against considerable odds.
My job at Rutgers required me to work 3 days in New Brunswick and 2 in Newark. Marvin and Waldys delighted me by enrolling at Rutgers Newark in the fall of 2010. I saw them several times a month and continued to involve them in activities with my other students. We still talked about the things we always talked about, but we also spoke more about girls, their friends’ substance use, their families, money and jobs. Both took a little while to adjust to the rigors of college coursework, but eventually they started doing well at Rutgers. There were hiccups: Marvin’s car was stolen, Waldys’ parents divorced, Marvin almost got married (ugh…that was brutal)…the list goes on. We spent time together and talked about these problems, and one way or another, things worked out. Sometimes they were embarrassed to tell me something, so they would wait a little bit or the other one would tell me what was going on. I introduced them to my friends and family, and many of them knew Marvin and Waldys by name. A few of my friends were particularly helpful with them, and for that I am also grateful.
On May 18, 2015, 9 years after I met them, I had the unbridled pleasure, pride and joy in watching Waldys Batista and Marvin Pineda graduate from college. Waldys graduated with a BS in Criminal Justice and Marvin with a BA in film. Waldys has been applying for jobs as a police officer both in and out of NJ. He’s a dream candidate – he’s smart, hardworking, even tempered, humble, bi-lingual and cares about people. Marvin has been working and interning in film and will continue to do so (all of the videos on my site were shot by him). His goal is do to well enough making educational documentaries so that he can help build schools in poor countries. Sigh. These kids…these young men. I am so proud of them.
Go mentor someone. It will do as much for you as it does for them.