On May 29, 2015, I will have completed my tenth-year as a teacher at Alisal High School, and I have to say that it’s been a fruitful time, a decade filled with unparalleled opportunity, growth, and comedy. Throughout my ongoing, seventeen-year teaching career, I’ve taught at a handful of high schools and colleges in the Los Angeles area, but I found my niche at Alisal High School, and it’s at Alisal where I have realized the greatest and most significant accomplishments of my teaching career.
I was hired as an eleventh grade English teacher at Alisal in 2004, and I remained an English teacher for the following eight-years. Then in 2013-2014, my teaching assignment changed, and I made the switch from the English Department to the Opportunity Program, an educational program specifically designed for at-risk students at Alisal High School. It was a voluntary move, a decision I do not regret, and one which has re-introduced my career to new levels of growth, experience, and humor.
Teaching at Alisal has made me a stronger and wiser person, and I owe this combination of growth to the nearly 2000 students of whom I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, or not teaching, depending on who you ask. I still remain in contact with many former students. Social media has kept us connected, but I also come across many ex-students at the movie theaters, farmers’ markets, restaurants, parks, and soccer fields throughout Monterey County, and it’s always a pleasure to see how much they’ve grown and transformed. Some of them are now married with children, barreling head-on through life, experiencing the wisdom and pain of adulthood. I can’t help but laugh when I see that they are now part of the very life cycle that they rebelled against when they were students, and that many, now, have become exact replicas of their parents, something they swore would never happen.
Alisal High School has also helped me forge an everlasting relationship with East Salinas, the “Mexican” side of the larger city of Salinas. It’s a tarnished part of town, off and on one of the most violent cities in the United States, per capita. Nevertheless, the town’s collective spirit is strong. Coming from Los Angeles, a city of 18 million people, to a small agricultural town of 150,000 people, took some getting used to, but I knew I had to acquaint myself with the city and its people if I was to have any hopes of being successful as a teacher at Alisal High. I did, and my efforts have helped me achieve good things.
Those familiar with East Salinas know that it prides itself on its rough exterior and gritty work ethic. It could be an intimidating place on the surface, but those with patience and discernment, those who dare to look past the city’s deceptive shell, will find that the lifelong residents of East Salinas stand firmly behind their tiny corner of the world, and that these residents are brimming with the same love and kindness and understanding found in any other corner of the world. The people of East Salinas are a mostly open group, too, willing to share their stories and their origins, something they do so with intense passion. This openness made life easy for an outsider like me, because all that was necessary of me was to listen. Ultimately, listening to my students’ stories, listening to the many stories and voices of everyone I came in contact with, listening intently and inwardly, without judgement, has been one my most powerful teaching skills. The art of listening has proven more valuable to me than any teacher’s manual or college course could ever be.
The other tool in my teaching arsenal is something a little easier to come by: the art of smiling. In East Salinas, a smile and handshake can take you a long way. It’s a magical combination, but there is no magic to it. It is part of the simple formula for success—listening and smiling—but a lot of people are afraid to smile, afraid of what they don’t understand, and many, it turns out, don’t understand East Salinas. They’re intimidated by the stories they’ve heard and what the media portrays. They don’t take the time to experience the city for themselves. Many find it difficult to look past East Salinas’ exterior, and so the city remains shrouded in an unwarranted, unideal reputation, and these reputations, as we know, are difficult to shake.
You’re Gonna Die