The Accidental Teacher

by Mark Cisneros

It was never my ambition to become a high school teacher. This idea did not exist for me. I respected most of the teachers I had, but becoming one? Nah, it wasn’t for me. My 20’s were a mess, and I didn’t have life together, so there was no way I was going to slide into a classroom and preach the gospel to the right path to a bunch of teens going through the most tumultuous periods of their lives. I had to be more concerned with my own life and on trying to carve out a decent living for myself, whatever this entailed. Teaching didn’t fit into my vision of a good life. Besides, I hated school. It was a joke. My elementary years were some of the best of my life.

At 28, I was basically like that stupid vacuum—you know the one that people leave on in their houses while they’re away—the one that bumps into furniture and table legs, trying not to get stuck, as it attempts suck up cat hair and lint and crumbs. That was me, bumping into dead ends and different jobs and different college majors. But even then, I always had one ear peeled way back, listening hard for my life’s calling.

At 28, I was earning $865.00, a month as the English Department Grad. Assistant at Cal State Los Angeles. It was an easy gig, and the hours meshed well with my class schedule. I worked mornings. In the afternoons, I worked towards earning a Master’s Degree in English. But I was nearing my 30’s, and making $865, a month was embarrassing. I was living at home as a young adult, and my mom was still asking me where I had been the night before. I needed change.

One day, I heard an adjunct professor mention the name Frank Zepeda. I couldn’t have been wrong in hearing it, and even though I had not heard that name in exactly ten-years, I knew it was the Mr. Zepeda I knew from Mt. View High School in El Monte, Ca. Mr. Zepeda single handedly saved my life when I was a senior in high school. His belief in me gave my life direction and purpose. He didn’t provide me with any specific advice or big game pep talk. He didn’t point me in any direction, and he didn’t talk to me about purpose. He’s just responsible for helping me paddle out of the shit in which I was stuck.

This is how Mr. Zepeda did it. I had just finished walking off the graduation stage, a place I’d never thought I’d find myself just months earlier. I don’t remember my name being called; I don’t remember walking up to the stage; I don’t even remember walking off the stage. I barely remember being there, but I know I graduated.

Then, after the ceremony, I decided to take a solitary walk through campus. I was alone. I strayed from my family, as I needed a few minutes to myself. You see I never thought I would graduate. I had been kicked out of my previous high school. I had poor grades, my attendance was poor, I smoked a shitload of weed, and I hated school. And yet I felt like I owed it to myself to take one last walk through the school, to try to get out of there with solid memory, something intact and tangible. There wasn’t anyone around from what I could see. I was still in disbelief, I think, kinda blown away that I had done it—that I had graduated.

Mt. View High School was comprised of perfectly squared, windowless, brick buildings situated at a good distance from one another. The roofs were flat, and concrete covered most of the acreage. Surrounding the entire school was a ten-foot high chain-link fence, which either made you feel trapped or safe.At the farthest edge of the school was a duck farm. Our athletic fields ended where the duck farm started, so the stench of duck shit was prevalent. The school’s mascot was a Viking, but to our rival schools, we were the Mt. View Ducks. It was just a weird place.

I continued on my walk. I had no aim. I was just trying to be present. I was talking to myself, whispering my thanks and disbelief. Then, without warning, I saw Mr. Zepeda. He was chatting with the school’s Dean. We made eye contact from afar. I could tell from his facial expression that he surprised to see. After all, graduation was over and here I am walking aimlessly through campus. He called me over. I bowed my head walked over.
Even though he was my favorite teacher, I remember not wanting to talk with him. It’s awkward when you’re talking to teachers outside of the normal school settings. We were on campus, true, but school was over and I had just graduated. There was nothing left to discuss.

When I reached him, the Dean said “Hi” to me and then took off.
I’m not sure how long we talked, and I don’t remember what was said, either. I really wish I could remember every word, but nothing from that conversation comes to mind. But this part I do remember.
Towards the end of our talk, Mr. Zepeda put his hand on my shoulder. It caught me off guard, and my body stiffened. It wasn’t a forceful or heavy touch. He just rested his hand on my shoulder in a fatherly way (not a Catholic Fatherly way), but in a Michelangelo’s painting Sistine Chapel’s ceiling kind of way. And then magic happened. With his hand still rested on my shoulder, he said to me in his calm, soothing drawl, “I expect big things from you, Mark.” This is all I remember from our encounter.

“I expect big things from you, Mark.” “I expect big things from you, Mark.” “I expect big things from you, Mark.” He couldn’t have known that these were the very words I needed to hear right at that moment. He couldn’t have known because I didn’t even realize I was that desperate for affirmation, for someone to believe in me. What made these words even more powerful was that they came from the very person I needed to hear them from. I said, “Thanks,” and walked away. I found a quiet spot near my English class and sobbed.

And that’s how Frank Zepeda saved my life. From that point on, I set out to accomplish everything I could, and if I was down or tired, I just remembered, “I expect big things from you, Mark,” and again, everything was possible. For all I know, Mr. Zepeda could’ve uttered these same words to every other student, but for that time, in that moment, I was the only one around, so they were my words, and they are still are my words.

When I heard the adjunct professor mention Mt. View and Zepeda, I had no choice but to pry. “Did you say Mt. View High School?” I asked. “Yeah,” she said. “I graduated from there.” “Oh, cool! So did I,” I said. “Do you know Mr. Zepeda?” She obviously did, since she mentioned him but I was playing stupid. “Yeah,” she said enthusiastically.” I could tell she thought he was as cool as I did. “He was my twelfth grade English teacher,” I said. “Oh, yeah?” she said. “He’s a principal now, at Norwalk High School.” “Really? He doesn’t teach anymore?, I asked. “No, he moved on,” she said. “I guess he got tired of teaching.” She said, “Bye,” and walked on down the hall. I sat at my desk for a few moments. I was stunned, but still a little excited at hearing about my favorite teacher. I returned to my tasks, but I had been wounded by a nostalgic arrow. I thought about Mr. Zepeda a lot after high school. I wondered what he was up to and how he was doing.

I kept thinking about how weird it was to hear his name, but I was also happy to know he was alive. I now knew where he worked, too, and that he moved up the ladder, so to speak. I figured it would probably be a good time to reach out and contact him and tell him about all the good he did for me and how his words and his pat to my shoulder awoke me and gave my life direction. And so I did.
Norwalk’s High School’s operator answered the phone. “May I speak with Mr. Frank Zepeda?” I said. I had pretty good phone etiquette because it was part of my job as a graduate assistant. I used to answer all the phones. It got old fast, though. When I started the job, I went through the entire greeting with the politeness of a butler. “Hello. English Department. Mark speaking. Can I help you?” After a few months on the job, my greeting had dwindled down to, “English!” That was it, but I said it with conviction. I didn’t care who was on the other line. I didn’t care if they knew my name. I didn’t care if they had the wrong number. “English!” That was it. It worked, too, and I answered almost every question that was thrown at me, even the stupid ones.

The operator was polite. “Oh, yes. One moment, please. I’ll transfer you.” It was a short wait. “This is Frank Zepeda.” It was his voice, in the same exact tone with which he said, “I expect big things from you.” “Hey, Mr. Zepeda. How you doing? This is Mark Cisneros.” How could he remember me? Ten years had elapsed since we had spoken or seen each other. “Hey, Mark. What are you up to?” He remembered me. “Oh, nothing much. Just working. I’m earning my Masters’ Degree in English from Cal State L.A., and I work in the English office,” I said. After ten years, this is what I was doing? Hearing me say this to him reminded me of how little I had accomplished in ten years. “You want a job?” I wasn’t sure I heard correctly. I said, “What was that?” Mr. Zepeda repeated, “You want a job? I have an English opening. It’s eleventh grade English.” “Yeah!” I said excitedly. “Can you be here on Thursday for an interview at 11:00 a.m.?” It was Monday. “For sure. Ok, Mr. Zepeda. I really appreciate it. Thanks,” I said. “Ok, see you Thursday,” he said. “Ok, see you later,” I said.

To make a long story a little less longer, the interview went well, and I was given the job. I’m sure my history with Mr. Zepeda had something to do with my landing it, but in the end I was pretty knowledgeable, and I had a lot to offer.
When I graduated from college, it was my intention to become a writer. I don’t know why I felt I had to wait to finish college in order to start writing, but in my mind, this was part of the progression of becoming a writer. The majority of my friends applied to the teacher credential program. Most knew that they wanted to be teachers. I applied to graduate school. I knew I wanted to continue my studies in English and literature, and I figured that more studying would provide me with a broader scope of general knowledge and enhance my poor writing skills. Like I said, teaching wasn’t even a thought at this time.

While my friends were studying to become teachers, I was earning my M.A. in English. Sometimes I wondered if I made the right choice to pursue a Master’s Degree in English, but I was hearing horror stories about the credential program, so I was pleased.

Mr. Zepeda hired me on a few conditions. One of them was that I had to earn a teaching credential in five-years. Because I had no credential, and because I wasn’t enrolled in a credential program, I was given an “Emergency Credential.” Teachers needed to possess some type of teaching credential, or at least be working towards one. A person couldn’t teach without one.

There was a major shortage of teachers in the 90’s, so in order to attract prospective candidates, California began distributing Emergency Credentials like gov’t cheese to anyone who show showed an interest in the teaching racket. It was easy, even for a guy like me who knew absolutely nothing about the profession. It wasn’t my calling, and I made a vow to get out of teaching in four-years. I wanted to make enough money to sustain me while I wrote a book.

Well, it’s been nineteen-years, and I’m still in the teaching game. Sometimes I hate myself for it. I didn’t want to be in it this long. I’ve seen what the profession can do to people. I’ve seen the shoulders and backs of good people, young, vibrant souls, droop and hunch and break with the weight of their complacency. It’s depressing. Others walk around zombie like, with eternal downward glances, not even looking up to see where they’re going, navigating their way by the all too familiar cracks and grooves in the cement. I didn’t want to suffer the same fate, and so I took inventory of these people, of the tired and wilted, and I promised myself that I would not suffer the same fate.

I received my very first teacher’s paycheck in September 1998. It was handed to me by the principal’s secretary, and it came in a plain white envelope. I remember feeling both excited and scared. I was trying to guess how much it would be. I didn’t open it right away. I waited till I was sitting in my car. It was parked in the teacher’s lot across the street from the school. Septembers in L.A. are hot, so my car was scorching when I got it, but still I just sat there.
I held the envelope over the steering wheel and opened it. I stared at it for a few seconds, letting the numbers sink into my mind a little deeper. It read: $2345.67. I had never seen a check for this much, especially one that was written to me. The words, “What the fuck am I going to do with all this money?” came out of my mouth. It was a lot of money to me, and I really did have a hard time trying to understand that a check for this much could be given to a human being. But within two weeks, almost every dime was gone. I lived paycheck to paycheck for the next two years because all I did was party and dine with my girlfriend.

Now, when I try to corral all the years into a single memory of sorts, I can see that my teaching career, so far, hasn’t been that bad. It’s actually gone pretty well. I like to think, or hope, at least, that I’ve changed lives in positive ways, and that I’ve been a role model, and that I’ve improved my own quality of life.

I’ve even earned a few awards for my teaching. The biggest was being, recognized as “One of Los Angeles County’s Most Inspirational Teachers.” This was special because the nomination came from the students themselves. I have a picture with then L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and a t-shirt to prove it.

Yes, my life is a little easier now, financially speaking, although, teachers’ dollars still don’t go very far. I’ve had a lot of fun and interesting times as a teacher, and I’ve made some strong, long lasting connections with students. Along the way, I’ve been asked to baptize babies and be the best man at weddings. I’ve also been invited to numerous Quinceñeras and baby showers. I’ve also been invited on family outings to Mexico. Some students have even tried to set me up with their older sisters and aunts. It’s even gone further. Students have also asked me to pack bowls with them, smoke joints, take shots, snort lines, and do keg stands at their kickbacks or house parties. No, there’s never been a shortage of surrealism, comedy, intrigue, and mystery in the teaching profession. Every day is grab bag. You just never know what’s gonna go down.

5 thoughts on “The Accidental Teacher

    • Thanks! Teachers do play significant roles in out lives. Most everyone has had that one teacher or even two, teachers that were more than just adults in positions of authority. You’ll be a great teacher and coach when you get into it full-time.

  1. I’m revisiting our roles as teachers. I now approach my students as a coach would. Recognizing strengths and playing to them, getting the team to work together, drilling when needed, working on stamina when needed, pushing, bribery, tough love, real love, cheering from the sidelines, providing optimal conditions to train, providing decent gear, pep talks and reflective huddles ……you know better than most.

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