Ganas: An Alisal Story

This 2018-2019 school-year marks my 14th Year Anniversary as a teacher at Alisal High School. When I first arrived to the area, as a transplant from Los Angeles, I knew nothing about Salinas or East Alisal or Alisal High School, but I did know that I was excited to begin a new chapter in my teaching career, at a new school, and Alisal seemed the perfect place. I mentioned to the few people I knew that I had found a teaching gig in Salinas and then watched as their jaws dropped when I said “Alisal.” They were sure that my life would be in danger, and that I was stepping into a deadly place. I didn’t know it then but East Salinas had a bad reputation, but it was born from people who just didn’t know any better. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the negative rap on Alisal was completely unwarranted. These people were wrong. Alisal was and continues to be the best school at which I have ever worked, and this is saying something, since I’ve been to some pretty cool schools, including John Muir High in Pasadena and Norwalk High in Los Angeles. I ignored the noise and began my career at Alisal, armed with five-years of teaching experience and a master’s degree in English. My first assignment included five sections of 11th grade English, ideal for me, as American Lit was my emphasis, and I liked teaching writing and mechanics.

Throughout these fourteen-years, I have met some incredible kids, each one with a history, a beautiful, sometimes harrowing story that has shaped them and influenced the courses of their lives. As a new teacher at Alisal, I set out to immerse myself in the school’s culture and to learn as much as I could about the students of Alisal High School. I wanted to know who they were, who they wanted to be, and why. I didn’t just want to learn about my students’ lives—I NEEDED to learn about their lives, in and out of the classroom. As an English teacher, there’s really only one genuine way of doing it: writing.

Writing assignments are magic. They help peel back the veils on student lives and create openings to catch glimpses and flashes of who they are. Through my students’ writings, I learned about their triumphs, defeats, pains, and struggles. All I had to do was assign writing topics, prompts that engendered introspection and which allowed the students to delve into themselves, to reach inwards and extract the pain, to help put the struggle to rest, or to simply lay their problems and dreams before their eyes, in front of their faces, right on their desks so that they could stare at them and take in the light and power that emanated from their own words. Through writing, along with long classroom talks about the world, I was let into their lives. They gave me permission to learn about who they were and where they came from. More importantly, however, much more importantly, I learned from them. They taught me everything I would need to know in order to succeed at Alisal High School. They gave me permission to become one of them. All I had to do was to remain true to my own self. I did and I have.

Like I said, I have met some truly amazing kids. I’d like to celebrate my 14th Year Anniversary at Alisal by sharing stories of some of these kids as a form of celebrating their triumphs. I begin with Gerardo.

Gerardo was a student in my 12th grade, A.P. English class. He had been in the Honors English class the year before, with Mr. Battaglini, but I had gotten to know him when he was a junior. He played on the J.V. soccer team, and I knew a lot of the soccer players on both the J.V. and varsity teams, as many were my students. They would swing by my room and we’d talk about soccer and our favorite teams and whatever else. Watching soccer in my classroom at lunch was pretty normal. That’s how I got to know Gerardo.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Gerardo was a super smart kid. In my A.P. English class, he was the best writer, the best reader, and the best thinker I had. He was always attentive and always curious. Learning mattered to him, real learning, and so he set out to get as much of it as possible.

We read a lot that year. It was my first time teaching A.P. English, and so I wanted to make it special.

We read Dracula, Frankenstein, Paradise Lost, Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, and Catcher in the Rye. It was an awesome list of novels, and I did all I could to keep them interested, and to their credit, they were.

Writing, too, was essential, and I had the students respond to the books in order to help them gather the meanings and themes of each novel. Gerardo’s responses were the best. He was eloquent and thoughtful, and he got as close as anyone when it came to discovering motive and intent. In short, Gerardo was a superb student, and every teacher felt the same about him. He just had a way of rising above everyone, academically and intellectually.

What makes Gerardo’s story so inspiring is that he arrived from Mexico to the United States at the age of thirteen! When I found this out through his writings and through conversations with him, I was blown away! Even now, I don’t really know how to put this into the celebratory context it deserves, but you need to understand that Gerardo was writing and reading and thinking better than any student in any of my classes, and I’m talking about students that were born here and claimed English as their primary language. It was exhilarating to have a student like him, and I counted myself lucky to be in his orbit. But still I could not help but wonder: How did he do it? How did Gerardo, who attended El Sausal Middle School at the age of thirteen, as an 8th grader, and then to Alisal, become so smart, and how did he learn English so well? Granted that he had a pretty significant accent—picture a Mexican Arnold Scharzenegger—but still he was natural with the language. I needed to know his secret! Weirdly, though, I was a little embarrassed to ask him. I think I felt that maybe I would offend him or embarrass him if I pried deeper into his personal story, so I never took the time to ask him how he acquired his language skills…until one day!

It was a morning in May, around 7:20 a.m. I was driving down Williams Rd., one of East Salinas’ main arteries and one that runs directly in front of Alisal High School. I was about ½ mile from campus when I saw Gerardo walking alone on the eastern side of Williams. He was heading towards school. I knew it was my one chance, so I knew right then that that I had to pick him up and immediately ask him, “How do you do it?” And this is exactly what I did.

I pulled up beside him, put the window down and said, “What’s up, Gerardo? Get in. I’ll give you a ride.” He got it in and off we went. I didn’t waste any time, as the question escaped my mouth before I could control it. “How do you do it?” I asked. He was taken aback a little. “Do what?” he said. I said, “How do you do it? You read better than any of my students. You write better than any of my students. You think better than anyone in the class. How do you do it?” He went quiet for second and I waited. I knew I had probably caught him off guard, and that he probably couldn’t answer or didn’t want to answer. Then, finally, he looked straight ahead down Williams with an intense look in his eyes and said, “Sabes que, Cisneros. Cuando llege de Mexico al los Estado Unidos, le puse un chingo de ganas al escuela!” (You know, Cisneros, when I came to the U.S. from Mexico, I put forth a shitload of desire and effort into my education). The words came out fast, and I could tell that he was proud to have said them. There was strength and power in his response. It came from a very proud place within him. I think he was excited to have been asked what a lot of people were probably wondering about him, too. My own pulse sped up a bit when I heard his response. I was stunned. I thought, “You mean there was no secret power to his success? There was no magic potion? No special privilege or help? It was simply ‘ganas’?” And it was true. Ganas, or desire, is all that Gerardo relied on. His ganas put him head and shoulders above everyone else.

Before that moment in the car, I respected Gerardo a great deal, but after hearing about what propelled him, I cultivated an even deeper respect and admiration towards him. He became one of my heroes. I still regard him in this way, which is why, fourteen-years after meeting him, I’m now writing about him. Unfortunately, meeting Gerardo and knowing of his success forced me to look at my other students with slight disdain. A lot of my students were born in the U.S. Their parents worked and they had money. English was their first language. They had everything that most immigrants die for, and yet many of my students were squandering their privileges. They didn’t care about school. They didn’t care about their attendance, and they failed classes. They simply were indifferent towards school and towards their parents and towards life in general. This is still true, today. They didn’t have the power that this proud, hard-working, Mexican immigrant kid had. They didn’t have ganas!

Gerardo graduated from Alisal High School in 2006, and was awarded the most prestigious, full-ride academic scholarship Fresno State had to offer. It was called the Smittcamp Family Honors Scholarship, and it came with a laptop and a student parking space. In his senior year, Gerardo was one of only two students in the entire school that passed every single A.P. Test he took, which included Calculus, Spanish, and History. Gerardo graduated from Fresno State in 2010. He is now a licensed civil engineer, having passed his licensing exam last year, in 2017.

Unfortunately, to this day, Gerardo is still very worried about deportation and Trump’s policies towards immigrants. Gerardo said to me, “Deportation is something that I worry about to an extent. I know it can happen, but I stay out of trouble and try to be as good a citizen as I can.”

Gerardo has plans for the future. His next big step is to open his engineering firm. He’s more informed now and knows that opening a business is possible for him, despite his immigration status. I’m sure it will happen for him because he has what it takes. He has ganas!

The End