Pops: A Life of Love and Perseverance

The following is a piece I read in tribute to my beloved cousin Pablo Cisneros. He passed away one-year ago, today. I miss him something awful, but I carry him in my heart.

 

Good morning, everyone. My name is Mark Cisneros, and I’m Pablo’s cousin on the Cisneros side of his family. I want to begin by first giving a big “Thank you” to everyone who has come together to celebrate Pablo’s life and for making this time of mourning as easy as possible for his wife Adriana and Pablo’s two girls, Briana and Alyssa.

I have to say that I was blown away by the outpouring of love and respect I saw at last night’s viewing. It was beautiful to personally see Pablo’s massive group of friends pay their final respects and to hear many of them share memories and experiences they had with Pablo. What the Kamayatsu and Cisneros family has seen over the course of the last few weeks has done a great deal to lift the collective spirits of both families, as we have witnessed firsthand what Pablo and Whoski’s Barber Shop means to his friends and to South El Monte. We are hopeful that Whoski’s Shop will continue to represent South El Monte as a place where locals and those beyond can get a fresh cut, a laugh, and, as Jamie said, even a beer. Your support is proof that Pablo did not pass in vain. Again, on behalf of Pablo’s family, thank you.

To many of you, Pablo is known as Whoski, but to me, he is Pops. Pablo was born in 1977. When Pablo was a one-year-old, I started playing little league baseball. It happened that I was put on the Pirates. At the time, in professional baseball, the Pirates were one of the best teams. Their team captain was a guy named Willie Stargell. He was a big guy, and he was always laughing and trying to take the serious edge off the game for his teammates. He was loved by both his teammates and fans, and he was well-known throughout baseball as being a player that fought for the greater good of his team and as a player that never gave up. His teammates called him “Pops,” because he was like a father figure to many on the team. Pablo, even at a young age, reminded me of Willie Stargell, and like Willie Stargell, Pops was left-handed, too. So I started calling him Pops, and then many of his Cisneros cousins did the same, and the name stuck. This is why Pablito will always be Pops to me.

As it turned out, Pops actually grew into these qualities. Like his Aunty Erica said to me last night, Pablo was a “hard luck” kid, and she’s right. Pablo had every excuse to fail and amount to nothing. He missed out on much of the love and attention that a father should bestow on his son. He could’ve gone down some bad roads and gotten into real trouble, but with the love and support of his mother Diane and his step-dad Art and his extended family, Pops did his best to stay on track. It wasn’t easy for him. There were many bumps on the road, but despite all the setbacks he experienced, Pops, in his own way, continued to push ahead. he persevered, and this is a lesson we can all learn from him. His willingness to persevere is a vital part of the legacy he leaves behind for his two girls and for everyone else that thinks that dreams can’t come true. He kept at it and kept at it and did not deviate from his dream. This is something we can respect in any person.

I talked a good deal with Pops. We were always close. I was really proud of him when he decided to get his barber’s license. We would talk while he was attending barber school, and he expressed worry about passing the test. Then he finally did, and he started working as a barber. I made it a point to visit every shop he worked at. Some of the shops were literally boxes cut into a wall with two or three chairs. I remember he worked in one shop where everyone who worked there spoke Spanish, and he didn’t. And he’d make fun of them and say, “All these fucking paisas do all day is watch soccer.” But there he was, trudging along and cutting hair and doing his thing, and I could tell, even as he stood there looking a bit unhappy at his current surroundings, that his dream of owning his own barber shop was never far away.

And then it happened! He called to tell me, and I could tell he was ecstatic. He told me he was still unsure as to what to call it and he was playing around with a few names. “Whoski’s” was one of them. Now that I think back on our conversation that day, I’m pretty sure he was, in Pops’ kind way, asking me if it was ok if he called it Whoski’s, because he knew that I loved him and that he was “Pops” to me. I assured him that he no choice but to call it Whoski’s because it was the name his family called him by and because it was a unique name. I think he was happy to hear me say this.  Later, he called me to talk about the shop’s logo and we bounced ideas off of each other. The next thing he knew, Whoski’s was open for business!

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I knew that when Pops cut my hair that I had to put aside about and hour and a half for him to finish. As I sat in his chair, we always took the time to catch up with each other, to talk about our families and our daughters, to talk about our siblings and parents and Disneyland and the Lakers and anything else we could think of. Sometimes he would spend ten-minutes trying to find a movie or a game on T.V. He would stand there with the remote control in his left-hand and the hair trimmer in the other, just flipping through channels until he found what he wanted.

But Pops loved his job! It involved everything that was dear to his heart: talking smack all day, barbers capping on each other, laughing, eating, watching sports. It was his home away from home. It was his sanctuary. I was happy to see him happy, and this is how I am going to remember him. I’m going to miss him like crazy, and my life won’t be the same without him, but just as he has taught me, I have to keep pushing along. He would want this for all of us.

It would be hard to find a more loving man than Pops. He loved everyone in his family, and despite the distance between us, he never skipped a beat when it came to showing affection and happiness to see his family. He talked a great deal of his daughters. The last time we spoke, he expressed concern about Brian’s education because South El Monte High had gotten in trouble. Her well-being weighed heavily on his mind. Alyssa brought added joy to his life, and she kept him on his toes. She was a daddy’s girls and she was always after him. He was tired a lot, but he always had time for his girls. He did all he could to make their lives as happy as possible.

Even when he talked about his father Pablo, Sr., there was no outward animosity or hard feelings. His father was absent for a lot of his life, but he he loved his father and expressed great interest in traveling to Mexico to see him. I think this particular episode sums up the love that Pops is blessed with. He had every reason to resent his dad, but he didn’t. He looked past all the negative and focused on the positive. This is perhaps the greatest thing I respect about my cousin. He learned how to love and much of it he learned on his own.

I just want to share one more fun fact: It’s no secret that Pops was a huge Lakers’ fan, and as a fan, he’s seen the best and worst of times. Currently, the Lakers are really, really bad, probably the worst in the league, but last night, on the evening  of Pops’ wake, the Lakers beat the Warriors in what is already considered one of the greatest upset in the history of the NBA. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I’m sure Pops was sitting court-side to watch that one.

Again, I want to thank all of you. I feel that I’m close to all of you simply because you know my cousin, and so we are all part of the same circle of friends that center around a loving and caring man. I love you, Pops. Rest in peace, Primo. I will miss you beyond words.

Preview: Alisal vs. Watsonville

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Aficionados of high school soccer get a chance to kick off the new year with an early bang, as Alisal visits Watsonville for what is set to be a scintillating match between the two storied and nationally ranked schools. Kickoff for J.V. is set for 5:00 p.m., while the Varsity match begins at 6:45. Both games are at Watsonville.

Topdrawersoccer.com has the Wildcatz ranked at #10 in the nation, while the Alisal Trojans sit ten steps down at #20. However, as sports fans know, rankings can be grossly miscalculated. The Trojans are holders in the Gabilan League, winning 3 out of the 4 league championships since the super league was created four-years ago. The Trojans have also enjoyed consistent dominance over Watsonville. In eleven meetings going back to 2010, Alisal has been victorious six times, including a 1-0, win over the Wildcatz in the 2010 CCS Championship. In the process, the Trojans have only lost twice to Watsonville. However, league dominance has not translated into State Section Titles for the Trojans, as Alisal has fallen in the first round of the playoffs in the last three-years, while Watsonville has earned a Co-Champion piece of the last two State Section Championship.

The past is the past, of course, and both schools are dialed in for the January 3rd match. Alisal has done it’s best to construct a solid preseason schedule, traveling to Los Angeles in December to take on the nation’s best schools, and they did not disappoint. Alisal beat perennial powerhouse Paramount, 3-1. Two days later, they traveled to Loyola, who just weeks earlier had been ranked #1 in state and #2 in the nation. The Trojans beat the Cubs, 1-0. In their final match in L.A., the Trojans took on another Catholic powerhouse in Cathedral. The Trojans dominated the Phantoms but managed only a point in the 0-0 draw. In all, the Trojans have compiled a 5-2-1 preseason record.

With wins over North Salinas and Aptos, to name a few, Watsonville’s preseason schedule has been light in comparison. Nevertheless, the Wildcatz remain undefeated and have not conceded a single goal in an impressive 400 minutes of play. Offensively, Watsonville is led by senior Francisco Gonzalez, an experienced and intelligent attacking player who has netted three goals in their preseason run. For now, the Catz will lean on their defense and will seek to continue their solid defensive form against the Trojans. Not to be outdone, however, Alisal, too, has been solid defensively, having not conceded a goal in over 320 minutes of play. The Trojans have been led by senior captain Eduardo Miranda. Miranda has been impressive in his final year, and with the supporting cast of Manny Figueroa and Alfonso Hernandez, Alisal has proven difficult to breach.

In short, Tuesday’s match should be doozy, as it is packed with league, championship, and CCS implications. A win for either school can secure a spot in the driver’s seat, putting early pressure on the other teams in the Gabilan League and even pave the way for a number one seed in the Open Division of the CCS playoffs.

My 2016 (Briefly)

I enjoyed my 2016. Like any other year, it was comprised of certain highs and certain lows: tragedy, death, prosperity, failure, pain, regret, success, growth, fatigue, and newness. However, I was in no way ever bored. In fact, I have never been bored in my life. My mom even commented on this once. “Sabes, mijo, que nunca te a oÍdo decir que estabas aburrido. Es una cosa impresionante. De hecho, yo te ha comentado cuando estabas chico que yo estaba aburrida, y tu me decias, ‘Como puedes estar aburrida? Hay tanto que hacer. Leer un libro. Ve por una caminada. Ve andar por bicicleta.’” I immediately thought back on my life when she told me this, and it was true. I was always involved in something.

Anyway, back to 2016. My cousin Pablo died. He passed exactly one-year after opening his own barber shop in South El Monte where we grew up. It was his dream, and he made it happen. He called it “Whoski’s!” It was the nickname given to him by his parents. He was Japanese-Mexican, and he was all pure heart. I was over the moon for him when he opened for business, and when I was in town, I always got a chop at his shop. He was like a little brother to me, and I loved him exactly like a brother. His death was the lowest point of my year. I miss him immensely. He now joins my cousins Jimmy and Hago. They were both young, too, and I miss them immensely, as well.

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I have regrets. I regret not spending more time with my family in Los Angeles. They’re five-hours away, but life is relentless in wedging itself into every crevice of time, and so I’m left with the regret of not seeing them as often as I’d like. I will try harder this year, for sure. I need to see my niece way, way more! At some point, I’m going to have to be her soccer coach. I need to see my cousins, too. I’ve become too predictable in their absence. I need to regain the insanity they once provided for me. Good times!

I regret not seeing the other many people who are important to me. There’s Robert, Mario, Roy, Joe, Mando, Dr. Koon, Maggie, Susan, and Julie. I always say I will. I will not make any more excuses for myself. Again, I will do my best.

I have seen my daughters grow, and it has been wondrous. You could erase every part of my life before them, and I wouldn’t care. They are my life, now, and they keep me on my toes. Every thing I do is for them and through them. This will not change.

My wife Guen is the fine wine of our household. She has become better at everything she does, and she does it all with a positive attitude. I am lucky to have her, as are my girls Xaria and Iris.

My job is as good as a job can get. If I didn’t have to work, I wouldn’t, but since I do, Alisal High School is where I want to be. I love my students, and I know they love me. We need each other. They keep my young and up-to-date on all the latest slang, drugs, music, and curse words. I owe them a lot for this.

My soccer team has also been a constant for me in 2016. They have enjoyed relative success, and they have remained mostly happy and driven. There are always setbacks, but this is essential when coaching any team. In fact, it’s necessary. As always, we learn a great deal from every loss and failure. Fortunately, this hasn’t been a patter for us. We will continue our success well into 2017. I will do my best to see that they are successful in as many facets of their lives as I can. I love my boys!

My mom and her health has been a godsend. She continues to run and hike every day, and she has implemented Cross Fit into her regiment. I feel small around her, as she has the physique and health of a lioness. I both envy and admire here drive. I hope to inherit more of this as I age. She is graceful in this regard.

I’ve gained a few pounds this year, too. It’s only temporary, as I will, again, get back into shape. It’s just a matter of time (I hate time).

My brother and sister are doing very well, too. Juan continues to climb his personal ladder of success at warp speed. He’s great at every task he commits to, and he is humble with praise. Erica continues to be a great mother to little Siggy. She has embraced motherhood and committed herself to raising an upright girl. She is experiencing the challenges of raising a kid, and she is doing very well. I am proud of her. Of course, she has a great partner in my brother-in-law Michael. He’s a beast of a father, and Siggy is incredibly luck to have him as her father. I love Mike, too! He’s super cool.

I won’t eye-roll you with much more, but I should acknowledge that 2016 is ending for me on high note. As some of you know, we took our Alisal team to L.A., and we had an incredibly successful soccer tour there, beating some of the nations top teams. We did not concede a goal while we were there. But the high note comes from the rallying support of so many people that invested in my boys and donated the funds we needed to get our team there. It was breathtaking in every sense of the word. There was help from family, alumni, lawyers, doctors, teachers, friends, and radio stations, and strangers. It was remarkable to see so many people come together and invest in our cause.

A special thank you goes to Marcia Bonilla, who got the OC Blues to donate thousands of dollars worth of professional soccer gear and uniforms to our boys. I will be sharing some of it with Alisal girls’ team, too. Thank you, Marcia! Another special shout out has to go to NPR’s Krista Almazan. Krista’ All Things Considered aired a piece on the boys, and the response was amazing. Because of Krista and her show, the boys raised nearly $18,000, in three days! This has caused us to pleasantly redirect our philosophy when it comes to helping our soccer players with their SAT and ACT fees, as well as with college application fees. In short, the good people that helped my boys have opened new doors for them, and now it seems that most anything is possible for them.

I will forever be thankful to every person that donated to the team. I wish I could personally thank every one of you. Maybe 2017 will allow me this.

Anyway, thank you, 2016! You were everything I expected and then some. I look forward to meeting 2017. I’m sure she’s (I don’t know why she’s female) got a few tricks up her sleeve, as well.

Peace and Prosperity to all of you who! Be good!

Don Marco,

El Poeta de la Gente

Float Like a Butterfly/Sting Like a Bee

My dad was a huge boxing fan, and I was always with him when the big fights were on. This was during the 70’s, when pay-per-view did not exist. The ABC network ran all the fights, live and for free!

I stood in awe before all my favorite pugilists. I watched Lupe Pintor, Alexis Arguello, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Leon Spinks, Sugar Ray Leonard, Pipino Cuevas, Carlos Palomino, and Salvador Sanchez. I watched them like a kid watches his favorite cartoon, but when it came to my all-time favorite, when it came to the one boxer who, for me, stood above all others, the one who was my hero, the one I wanted to be like, and the one I never wanted to see lose, it was Muhammad Ali!

When Ali fought, it was like watching a novel come to life, in motion, and Ali was the author. He, of course, was also the protagonist. I held my breath during each  three-minute chapter, and I used the one-minute break in between to catch my breath again before having to dive in once more to be taken over by his grace and power. This was art not imitating life. Ali imitated no one!

And just as every good novel has a voice, a narrator that holds our hands and leads us on the way, well, so did Ali’s. His name was Howard Cosell, and he was in possession of the only voice capable of narrating, with clarity, logic, and drama, the elevated glory and tragedy of Ali’s bouts. He was as reliable a narrator that ever existed, and, for me, these two men became one.

As a kid, with the exception of Thurmon Munson, the New York Yankess catcher who died in a plane crash, most of my heroes were Black. They were mostly athletes, too, but Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were also just as important to me. The fact that most of my heroes were Black was probably because I simply didn’t have access to Mexican heroes.  They weren’t emphasized in school. They existed, as I know, now, but I didn’t read about them. They weren’t on television. School didn’t teach them, either. Cinco de Mayo was as Mexican as my school got. I learned more at home when it came to the subject of great indigenous and Mexican heroes. I had Ali, though, and he was all I needed.

Ali was and still is my greatest hero. He changed the “sweet science.” He injected pugilism with humor, and he didn’t take himself seriously, although he was as serious a fighter as there ever was. He was political, and he had a voice, too, never shy when it came to speaking his mind or speaking out against injustice or war. Yes, he went to jail for not wanting to fight in America’s war. Most know this, and a few still hold this against him. They’ve never been trapped in a ring, one-on-one versus a another giant who is doing all he can to bring them nearly to death. Ali made his living in this manner, for years, until one day, he lost. And he lost again. And he lost again.  Smokin’ Joe Frazier was the first to defeat Ali. Ali had won 32 straight fights before his loss to Frazier. He would go on to lose to Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, and Larry Holmes (2), amassing a record of 56 wins, 37 by Knockout, and 5 defeats.

I watched till the bitter, ugly end, until the greatest and most consistent fighter ever, Father Time, decided that Ali’s career had to end, that the final chapter had to be written. Well, it was written, and as the book closed, so did my faith in boxing, not because I was disappointed in my hero, but because I knew there would never be another Muhammad Ali.

R.I.P, Muhammad Ali

Adrian Serrato: A Story of Character

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As a fourteen-year-old kid at Alisal High School in East Salinas, California, Adrian Serrato earned a spot on Alisal’s freshman basketball team.  At the turn of his sophomore year, however, Adrian made a life-changing decision, a decision made on his own and out of his heart. He would forego basketball and instead tryout for the Alisal Soccer Team. From that point, Adrian never again played basketball.

Adrian was an excellent basketball player, too. In fact, he’s good at every sport in which he competes, for he is an athlete in the most accurate sense of he word. Adrian could’ve excelled in badminton, lacrosse, frisbee golf, or water polo, and he most likely would earned the league’s top honors. These sports would come easy to him, but Alisal doesn’t field teams in any of the sports. Instead, as soon as Alisal’s soccer season comes to an end, Adrian immediately transitions into the two other sports he loves. With a solid 3.2 GPA in tow, Adrian competes in varsity tennis, a sport he picked up as a sophomore, and track and field, another sport he picked up as a sophomore. As a tennis rookie, Adrian reached the league championships twp-years in a row. In track, he raced in the 100M and 200M events, winning more than a handful of heats. As a senior, he finished as one of the best sprinters in the league. He had no prior track experience. He had no prior tennis experience. Had it not been for the commitment the Alisal Soccer Team demands of its players, Adrian could’ve perhaps even played basketball and soccer concurrently. But Adrian committed himself to soccer, and his dedication to the sport has earned him much praise.

All of this is impressive, but it’s not the most impressive thing about Adrian. This story centers around Adrian’s character: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. In addition to his athletic prowess, Adrian is also blessed with an abundance of character. Its origin is not hard to trace, as his mental and moral fortitude is likely a reflection of the mental and moral toughness possessed by his parents.

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Background

This past 2015-2016 season, the Alisal Trojans, competing in what is considered one of the most difficult soccer leagues in the nation, finished as the undefeated Gabilan League champions. For those not familiar with high school soccer, this must seem rather inconsequential, but even minimal research could help understand why this is significant. Watsonville High School competes in the same league. They, too, are a nationally ranked team, traveling the nation and competing in some the most prestigious tournaments in high school soccer. They have also won countless DI State Section Titles over the many years of their existence. Alvarez High School, one Alisal’s fiercest rivals, also competes in the same league. Alvarez is situated only three-miles from Alisal, in a modest part of the city decorated by track homes and trees. They are even within walking distance of a Starbucks. For geographical reference, Alisal is situated in the heart of East Salinas, an enclave of Salinas with the contemptible honor as being one of the most violent cities in the nation, per capita. There is no Starbucks. There are other tough teams in the league, and they would all like nothing better than to defeat Alisal. It hasn’t been easy for them. Ever since this super league was created four-years ago, Alisal has won three of the four league championships, two coming off undefeated seasons.

Character

Fast forward to the end of the 2015-2016, season.  Adrian was the unanimous coaches’ choice for Gabilan League MVP. He was named to the Monterey All-County First-Team, and he was named the The Californian All-County Player-of-the-Year. He made the front cover of the local newspaper, and he represented Alisal in the Monterey County All-Star Game. In short, it was a fine senior year for Adrian. With all the accolades and with still loads of untapped potential, Adrian was set to follow the paths of so many other soccer players in Salinas, players that ride into the sunset, content with the fleeting thrills of playing high school soccer. Deep down, though, Adrian wanted more. As his coach, I knew he deserved more.

With the help of Jazz Rodriguez, a salinas native and now Los Angeles transplant, a trip to an ID Camp at San Diego State was set-up for Adrian. Rodriguez has strong connections with many college coaches. The camp was set to take place just one week before Adrian would “Walk the Line” at Alisal to accept his high school diploma. As a bonus, we were able to arrange for our goalkeeper, Danny Lomeli, to join Adrian at the camp. Danny was also set to graduate. To make sure it was a go, I called the San Diego State Men’s Soccer Coach and relayed to him the potential I believed these kids possessed. He listened, not expecting much, and said he would await their arrival.

The first hurdle the boys face was finding a ride to San Diego. With a few days before the camp, a custodian at Alisal volunteered to drive them south. Then another hurdle.  At the last minute, the ride fell through. On the Friday before the camp, the boys were still in East Salinas, bags packed and uncertain as to how they would get to San Diego. It was 3 p.m. Time was running out. Then Larry Correa came into the picture. Larry played goalkeeper for many formidable Alisal Teams during the years spanning from 2003-2006. He played along side Alisal legends such as Aldo Meza, Ramon and Varos Hernandez, Joel Guzman, German Lopez, Tony Meza, Jimbo, and David Estrada. Larry’s dad runs a business which provides transportation to people from Salinas to Tijuana. An arrangement was made, and both Adrian and Danny found themselves on the four o’clock van headed for TJ. They arrived in San Diego at 1 a.m., eight hours before the start of the camp.

Jazz arranged lodging for them with a friend of his. They slept on a dorm room floor at the University of California San Diego, a twenty-minute car ride from the State campus. Jazz picked them up that morning and dropped them off at SDSU. The boys began their work. After an early dinner, Jazz gave them a ride back to the dorm where they took their respective spots on the floor and slept as best they could. The next day was not so easy. They didn’t have a ride back to SDSU for the second day of camp. From Monterey, I racked my brain and worked the phone, trying to get these guys a ride. Finally, a friend of mine and San Diego native, George Shillinger, made arrangements with a friend of his. He was an Uber driver. Within minutes, the boys were experiencing their first Uber ride. George saved the day!

After the two-day camp was over, the boys got in the same van and returned to Salinas at 1 a.m. They had school the next day and could not miss, as it was the first day of graduation practice.

I, too, had school, and as I sat at my desk and logged-in of the day, I called the SDSU coach. I was nervous. I asked him if my assessment of the boys was off or on, whether he believed they could play at that level and if they were perhaps worthy of a scholarship. The news was good.

He began by saying that he did not expect much from the camp. The recruiting season was as good as over, and all the recruits had signed their letters of intent or were on their way to the campus as soon as their high school careers were through. “It’s like the game is 3-0, with twenty-minutes left in the game, Mark. It’s difficult to break into any team at this point,” the coach said. “But your guys, Mark! They tied it up. It’s 3-3, and the fact that I’m talking to my coaches right now trying to figure out a way to make this work for your guys says a lot about them,” he continued. “Danny was the best keeper in the camp, and this is the best keeper group I’ve had in all our camps!” “Adrian was the most dangerous player on the field. In the last 11 v 11 game, four goals were scored. Adrian scored two!” He went on and on about them, and he praised their talents.

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As a coach, I couldn’t have been prouder, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that they had made the team, but the coach couldn’t go there. There were loose ends to tie and recruits were filing in. “If we can’t sign them, I will call any coach you want, and I will tell them that your boys are ready to go. I just won’t work for us right now.” This was fair, I thought, but before I ended the conversation with him, I need him to know one thing.

“Keep in mind, coach, as you make your decision, all that these boys had to do to get there. They rode in a van for almost nine-hours. They slept on a floor of stranger’s room. They performed the best of any of the players you brought in. They rode the van home and went to school the next day! This speaks to their character. You won’t find out about your new players’ character until after you’ve been with them for a while, maybe even after a few seasons, but with my boys, you already know what you’re getting, and they don’t even play for you. They did what they had to do to get to your school because they wanted it badly, for themselves. They got there and proved to you that they deserved a a chance. That’s character!” He acknowledged it, and the conversation ended.

Adrian’s Character

Now, you know a little about Adrian’s character, but there’s more. As a coach, I have a high expectations for players. It’s not easy to impress me, but even I have been greatly impressed by Adrian’s abilities. Everyone marvels at his skill. It truly is breathtaking. However, despite seeing Adrian compete in many games, and despite being greatly impressed with all he does on the field, it is Adrian’s ability to put aside emotional heartache in order to perform at his highest levels.

You see Adrian’s dad works in agriculture. Soccer is a winter sport. This means that as soon as soccer season begins, Adrian’s father heads to Yuma where the agricultural season is on a different calendar. He has to go where the work is if he is to provide for Adrian and his mother and his family. Adrian’s dad has never seen Adrian play for Alisal. The league MVP, the All-County MVP, the All-Star has never had his dad in the stands rooting for him. His dad wasn’t there for Senior Night, where parents traditionally walk their sons down the red carpet for their senior recognition. And on the most special day–the day that stands above any soccer championship or special night–Graduation Day–Adrian’s father was hard at work in the fields. Yes, Adrian’s illustrious high school soccer career came to an end without his father ever having seen him play, and despite this heart-wrenching fact, Adrain has held his head high and has outperformed many of the best soccer player in the nation! He has done it with him mother’s support. She holds down the fort when Adrian’s dad is gone, and Adrian, for his part, helps his mom where he can.

I’m glad to have known Adrian, and I know we will be friends for the rest of our lives. He is a great soccer player, but he is an even greater young man. To do what he does, under the circumstances, is a testament to his drive, to his character, and to his mother.
The next time you feel unable to move on, think of Adrian. If you’re a coach and your players are saying, “I can’t!” tell them about Adrian. My wife and daughters know about Adrian, and I will make sure that every player I coach from this point on will know about Adrian.

Dedicated to: Ernesto Garcia, Christina Parker, Gloria Chaidez, Mio Nishimura, Janice Aliotti, Mario Aguiar, Michelle Frankel, Albert Mazurca, Jazz Rodriguez, George Shillinger, Aurelio Madrigal, Natalie Bernasconi, Lalo Garcia, and the many more people that have helped my kids to get to where they need to be. It is greatly appreciated, even though at times it doesn’t seem so. Your generosity is never forgotten. 

Note: Adrian did not end up attending UCLA. He enrolled in Salinas’ local community college. UCLA and other universities passed on Adrian, mainly because he did not fit the physical profile of the players they choose. Therein lies the problem with American soccer.

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When the Bell Rings/Classroom Experiences: Andy

I remember Andy as a spirited, warmhearted sixteen-year-old. He wasn’t the sharpest mind in class, but he never had trouble understanding anything, either. He was fine with hovering around the middle of the academic scale, instead, letting his human qualities carry him through life. He was witty and slightly more mature than his classmates. I liked this about him. Most teachers did. He never caused problems; he did his work; he was respectful. We don’t ask for too much more.

 

One other interesting fact about Andy was that he never missed school, and while he was in school, he was usually in a good mood, never adverse to being social or to having a conversation about literature or life, whichever subject made more sense at the time. He shared the class with thirty-eight other students, but Andy’s placidity and aura set him apart from the pack. 

 

He was a big, chunky kid, too, clumsy even, his equally big persona doing its best to squeeze into his still evolving frame. This is was another part of his charm. He didn’t see himself as big. He was unaware that he was growing. He jiggled into the room with heavy steps and long strides, always hurrying to his desk for no reason other than to sit. He was child-like, and he seldom looked too deeply into the world around him.

 

Then, one day, Andy disappeared. He stopped coming to school and no one had heard from him. His absence on the first day was obvious. “Where’s Andy?” I asked to no one in particular.  They all knew him. He was semi-popular. Students were still filing in when I asked. “He didn’t come today,” said Sal, one of Andy’s buddies. “Why?” I asked. “I dunna know,” said Sal. They day went on without Andy, his empty desk taking up space in the middle of the room like a prop in theater class. Andy was absent the next day…and the next…and the next. Two weeks had gone by before he emerged.

 

At first glance, on his return, it was obvious to me that Andy was reeling from something, perhaps a tragedy or mind-altering event. He had changed, and it wasn’t all good. He wasn’t the first one to his desk as he so often was, and he wasn’t buzzing with the same energy that propelled him from point A to point B.  His face, too, had changed, altered by expressions of the depressed. “What happened,” I thought to myself. 

 

I was happy to have him back in class, though, and I didn’t waste time in making the first joke. “What’s up, Andy? Where you been?” I asked. “I was sick,” he said. He was looking down when he answered, shamed it seemed, as he stood near his desk before sitting. There wasn’t even a chuckle with his response. Just stoicism. I laughed, anyway, and said, “Yeah, I bet. Sick in the head, huh?” Andy managed a, “Yeah, something like that.” I stared at him for a bit–he didn’t see me looking–and a tinge sympathy washed over me.

 

He was wounded. There was no doubt. It was in his voice. This is how I knew something was amiss. I couldn’t even get a smile from him. Gone was the personality I had grown to like, and even admire. His usual joviality and childlike innocence was absent, too.

 

His disposition occupied my mind for the remainder of the period. When the dismissal bell rang, I called out to him as he was walked out of the room. “Andy!” He slowed near the door. “What’s up?” I asked. “Ah, nothing,” he said as he turned back towards me. He wanted to talk. “I was sick. I was in the hospital.” “Oh, yeah. You alright?” I asked. “Well, not really. They say I have Leukemia. They did a bunch of tests. The doctor told me I have three-weeks to live.” “What? You gotta be kidding me!” I said. I was dumfounded by Andy’s revelation.  “What do you mean you have three-weeks to live? What happened?” I asked.

 

Thinking back on that day, I realize that every word I uttered, every sentence I pieced together, must’ve sounded stupid on every level. What do you say when you hear a person you care about say something like this? What do you say to a kid who tells you he has three-weeks to live? I wasn’t trained for this. I wasn’t even trained to be a teacher. I was being forced into being human, and it was tough.

 

All I could muster was, “Damn, Andy. That’s gotta be tough. Could they be wrong? Is there anything they can do–like do they have a cure?” I was genuinely naive on the matter. I didn’t know then that Leukemia was a form of cancer. I had seen the commercials with the bald kid. I know there were people in stores asking for money for Leukemia awareness, but I never put much thought into it. Leukemia wasn’t something in the realm of my reality. “I don’t know,” said Andy. “I have to go back to the doctor.” It was clear from his tone that Andy was in a bad place. “We’ll if you need anything at all, just let me know, Andy. You know? Try to hang in there. You’ll be alright. Don’t worry about it.” I said. “Alright, Mr. C. Thanks. Later,” Andy said and we left it at that. 

 

This had taken place on a Friday. I remember this because my girlfriend and I had reservations for Carmine’s in South Pasadena. All week I had been looking forward to the seafood pasta, but the news of Andy’s disease hit me on an emotional level.  

 

The ride from Norwalk to Pasadena didn’t make things easier. Fridays are brutal, especially during rush hour. I jumped on the 605 and braced for a long, sweaty, hour-plus drive. It was the month of May, and the summer heat, as usual, came early. 

 

The 605 was a parking lot. I had the windows down and the radio on. I couldn’t tell you what was playing. It was peripheral, all conscious thought taking a backseat to Andy. As I sat in traffic, I figured I had time to give Andy a call and see how he was doing. It had been about three-hours since I last saw him, but I wanted to check-in and talk a bit, mostly just to make myself feel better. I reached into the backseat for my briefcase. I had my roll sheets in it, and these sheets contained my students’ contact info. I brought the case to the front seat and rummaged through ungraded essays and tests, looking for my roll book. I opened it to Sixth Period and found Andy’s home number. I called.

 

The A.C. didn’t work, but I had to roll up the windows in order hear clearly. Andy’s mom answered. “Hi, Mrs. Torres,” I said.  “This is Mr. Cisneros, Andy’s English teacher at Norwalk.” “Oh, Hi, Mr. Cisneros. How are you?” she asked. She was a nice Mexican lady with a sweet, mom voice. I had met her once before. She seemed pleased with the call, probably knowing that it couldn’t be anything too bad. Andy was a good kid. I answered, “I’m good. How are you doing?” “We’re all good. Thank you, Mr. Cisneros” she said. “Oh, good. Well, I’m just calling to see how Andy is doing. He was absent for a while. He said he was sick.” “Oh, yeah, he was sick, but he’s ok right now. He’s better,” she said. There wasn’t anything odd in her voice. She seemed in good spirits, pleased with Andy’s progress.

 

“Oh, that’s good,” I said. “Well, I was just calling because I was worried about Andy. I mean it must be tough receiving that type of news.” I began feeling awkward for some reason, and I kind of regretted making the call. “What news are you talking about?” Andy’s mom asked. “Well, you know how the doctor told Andy that he has Leukemia and how he has three-weeks to live.” I was now stammering, the sweat intensifying. “Andy? Andy Torres? My son?” I had set off the alarm. “Yeah, Mrs. Torres! Andy Torres from Norwalk. He’s in my eleventh grade English class. He came to school today. He told me that he has Leukemia and that he has three-weeks to live. This is what the doctor told him.” 

 

“Huh? No, no, no! Andy doesn’t have Leukemia,” she said with an uncomfortable laugh. “The doctor didn’t tell him this. We went to the doctor, but he doesn’t have Leukemia. He’s not sick,” she said. “What?” I thought to myself. Then I said, “Well, Andy told me this today. He told me after class. I asked where he had been, and he told me that he was sick. I don’t know what’s going on, but this is what he told me.” “No, he’s not sick, and I’m going to have a talk with him.” I could tell Mrs. Torres was angry. It was in her hurried voice. The “Mexican” mom in her had been awakened, and experience has taught me that when a Mexican mom gets angry, nalgas are going to get slapped.

 

“Mrs. Torres, I think you should first talk to Andy. You know be careful. I think maybe Andy is asking for attention or something. Try not to be too mad at him. There’s probably a reason why he said all this. I don’t think you should hit him or punish him right now. I think talking to him is the best thing right now,” I said. I was scrambling to do my best to protect Andy from getting the belt or chancla. His dad was an old-school Mexican dude with a big-ass belt buckle and a cowboy hat and a big-ass mustache and pointy boots. An ass beating was in Andy’s very near future. I knew it.

 

“Ok, Mr. Cisneros. I’m going to talk to Andy. I’ll wait until my husband comes home,” Mrs. Torres said. “Ok, well, I’m sorry about this. I think Andy just needs a talk. He should be ok,” I said. “Ok, Mr. Cisneros. Thank you for checking on him. Gracias por la llamada,” she said. “Ok, bye, Mrs. Torres.” “Bye,” she said, and that was it.

 

I wish I could tell you what happened after all of this, but I can’t. I don’t know. I made a follow up call, but I didn’t get an answer. I made the call because Andy never returned to school. There were only a few weeks left in the school-year, but Andy never came back.

 

I guess I could speculate, as I have, as to why Andy would make up a story about having Leukemia and having three-weeks to live. The classic, armchair psychologist explanation says that this was Andy’s way of asking for attention. This could be true, but Andy came from a pretty good home. He had parents who were present, not that these things alone prevent such things from happening, but on the surface, he wasn’t starved from attention. I saw a change in Andy.

 

Another reason could be that Andy had a break. Maybe this is why he missed two-weeks of school. Maybe he was an undiagnosed bipolar and maybe he finally had an episode, the psychotic break that forced him to see a doctor and finally get diagnosed and prescribed proper medication? I don’t know. I do know that there are a lot of students with undiagnosed mental issues. I see it a lot. They themselves don’t even know they’re sick.

 

I’m sure there are reasons why Andy did what he did. I’m just a teacher, though. I do what I can with what I have. Diagnosing my students’ issues is challenging. They all have issues, each one of them, and I would go crazy if I tried to cater to all their emotional and psychological needs. It wouldn’t be a healthy endeavor. So I do what I can. I am human with them. I praise them. I discipline them. I love them…at least the ones that are open to love. There are some students that have never experienced the spirit of love, just as there are students that have never seen the ocean. Dealing with kids is part of what it means to be a teacher.

Getting to the Next Level: A Student-Athlete Counselor

Let me preface this piece by saying that as a coach and teacher, there is much more I could do to help my student-athletes. I am aware of this, and I have carried this burden for as long as I have been a coach. It’s not easy, however. Because of the many responsibilities that come with being an educator and coach, coupled with the responsibilities I have as a husband, father, brother, and friend, it’s difficult finding the extra time necessary to help my players prepare for a possible playing career at the collegiate and/or university level. To improve his players’ chances, a coach must take on the role of “counselor” and have access to counseling resources.  After all, helping students get to post-secondary education is an intrinsic part of a counselor’s job description, at least philosophically speaking. However, even for actual counselors, this isn’t an easy task. Counselors are overburdened with massive student loads, sometimes 450 kids per counselor. Add to this the plethora of responsibilities that counselors have to account for, including class scheduling, transcript explanations, parent conferences, A-G requirements, meetings, and graduation. It’s a seemingly unending line of duties, and if you’re familiar with the world of public education, then you can sympathize.  

In this piece, I introduce an idea that could help high school athletes earn athletic scholarships. 

IDEA

As the head coach of a nationally ranked soccer team (Alisal High School) I’ve had the privilege of coaching some incredibly talented soccer players, and while a few have been able to continue their playing careers at the college and university levels, there have been many, many more that should’ve followed in these players’ footsteps. It should be noted that there is also a significant number of gifted soccer players that never actually get to play for their high schools because they have difficulty meeting their school’s eligibility requirements, which usually consist of a 2.0 GPA (C- average) and Satisfactory Citizenship marks. This is a topic for another time, though.

Getting an student-athlete to the next level is a challenge. In addition to having the proper GPA, there’s a list of qualifications that a student-athlete must meet, including specific class loads for specific Divisions (DI, DII, DIII, etc.), deadlines, GPA’s, SAT’s and ACT’s, and financial aid applications. What makes this even more difficult is that the road built to connect the high school athlete to an NCAA career is unfamiliar to many in secondary education, even to actual high school counselors. Counselors are the people that can facilitate the process for student-athletes, but as it stands, many counselors are not versed in NCCA Clearinghouse Qualifications or the “Core 16.” They couldn’t tell you what it means to be a “Qualifier” or “Partial Qualifier.” They don’t normally have to deal with this language, and so they simply do not know, and there’s no urgency to follow up and learn it. Of course, there are counselors that have some knowledge of this world, but they’re scarce.

What can I do to put my players in prime position to earn a full-ride, soccer scholarship right out of high school? I think about this a lot, mainly because I am surrounded by a vast amount of talent, talent that often goes wasted and unnoticed. It is a question that weighs on me heavily, but I believe I may have found an answer, or at least an idea that can lead to one.

First, however, let me tell you about Larry Beltran. A divine talent, Larry was a champion at every level of soccer he’s ever played. In high school, he was a two-time league champion, a California DI State-Section Champion, MVP, All-League Player-of-the-year, All-County Player-of-the-Year, First Team All-America Selection, and an All-Star. He was every recruiter’s dream, with Division II schools not even being an option. In fact, there’s even a possibility that Larry, at the age of 17, could’ve forged a professional career for himself had he been given the chance.

After his senior year, I received a call from the assistant coach at UCLA. They wanted Larry. The coach was reviewing the names on the First Team All-America list and noticed something odd about Larry’s name. Each First Team selection was coupled with the name of the university of which they had committed to play soccer. Larry’s name was not paired with any university. This part of the list was blank. He was the only one on that list that was not connected to a university. Naturally, UCLA was salivating at the idea of snagging an All-America player, one that had somehow escaped everyone’s view.

“Hi, coach. Just want to let you know that we’re really interested bringing Larry to UCLA. We noticed that he’s not committed to any school. What’s his GPA?” It was the first and only question he asked. “Well, I think he has a 2.2,” I said. “Oh, ok. Damn. I’m sorry. We can’t get him in, but tell him to go to the community college and play two-years, and maybe we can be ready for him when he transfers,” he said. “Ok, coach. I’ll let him know. Thanks,” I said. It was not a pleasant call. I really wanted this for Larry. Larry deserved it. His talent needed to be showcased. Unfortunately, when it came to academic effort and guidance, Larry’s four-year plan left a lot to be desired.

Larry’s is just one story of many similar stories. He didn’t have the grades. There was nothing the UCLA coach could’ve done for Larry because the first stipulation is that an prospective athlete must first be able to meet the school’s basic admission requirements. These requirements are set forth by the university and not the coach. The coach must abide by these requirements. Once the athlete gets accepted, then the coaches can step in an begin to construct a plan for their athlete.

Could something had been done to improve Larry’s chances of getting to UCLA, while he was still a high school student? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” And this is where I present my proposal. It’s a multi-step process, but it’s not outside the realm of the infrastructure that is already in place at every high school in the nation.

To keep things simple, I’ll use my school as an example for the plan. I propose that every coach at Alisal High School, in all sports, pinpoints those athletes who he or she believes displays the athletic talent worthy of perhaps earning a full-ride or even partial-ride athletic scholarship to university in their respective sport. Even if the potential is small, these athletes should be identified by coaches.

Now, once these athletes have been identified, the load could range from 100 to 200 athletes, they would then be grouped together, and they would be assigned to a “Student-Athlete Counselor,” a specific counselor that is 100%, well-versed in the NCAA Clearinghouse language and is fully committed to ensuring that these identified athletes stay on course and in-line with NCAA Qualifier requirements. It would require vigilance on the part of the coach and counselor, with periodic athletic checks to make sure that the identified athlete is on course through all four-years of high school. Ideally, we would catch these athletes as freshman, but I believe it would be more realistic to identify them as sophomores, once coaches have already seen these athletes perform. The input of middle school coaches could definitely help in identifying freshman talent, giving us early detection help.

If Larry, a player whose talents were known by many when he was barely a freshman, would’ve had this kind of academic guidance, things would perhaps be different for him. He’d probably be finishing his career at UCLA, perhaps readying for a professional career. As it turned out, Larry went on to even more soccer success, helping the local community college earn its first ever California State Championship. This, of course, is not surprising given Larry’s level of talent. Now, Larry is doing his best to move on, but he’s caught in somewhat of a rut, three-years later, still at the community colleges, his two-years of eligibility used up, trying to transfer to a university. The talent is still there, but UCLA is no longer an option.

My hope is that Alisal High School will move to create this position and to give our student-athletes a fighter’s chance of getting to the next level where they should be.

When the Bell Rings: My Classroom Experiences

Manny

For high school teachers, the Student Behavior Referral Form is perhaps the most popular and mostly used document in the world of education. This is because the “referral” provides the most powerful form of leverage teachers have in dealing with unruly and defiant students.  When used judiciously and appropriately, it allows teachers to formally dismiss a student from their class for a certain length of time, depending on the severity of the kid’s behavior. A dismissal can range from just the remainder of the period to a one-week suspension. In the most extreme cases, a referral could potentially lead to student expulsion.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that getting rid of that “one kid” is a game changer in terms of maintaining classroom management and creating a safe and effective learning environment for all students. If you have trouble picturing this, just imagine a kid wielding a knife in a crowded classroom and every student in this class cowering and nervous and completely aware of the knife and the kid. Imagine the tension level. Now, imagine the kid with the knife being removed from the class for good, no longer to ever return. Imagine the peace. There you go. This is what it’s like to get rid of that “one kid.”

Of course, because of its quick-fix quality, some teachers are keen on overusing the referral, often gratuitously. The power-struggle between a teacher and unruly kid can go on for some time, and when it does, resentment is born, causing the teacher to continually dismiss a kid just because he doesn’t like him. It happens. This behavior is no different than when a second grader gives candy to all her classmates, except to that “one kid,” because she doesn’t like him. Addressing the same problem child for 180 days would shrink anyone’s heart.

In my thirteen-year career as an English teacher (I am no longer a mainstream teacher), I had hundreds of reasons to write several referrals. I didn’t, though. This is because my patience level, for some reason, is almost Buddha-like. I don’t know from where it came, but I am blessed with a respectable level of tolerance and patience. In thirteen-years of dealing with vampires, kids that can suck the soul right out of a person, I pride myself on only writing two referrals in my thirteen-years as a mainstream teacher. Oh, believe me, I had those fucking forms filled-out and signed and ready to be delivered, but there was always a reason, a voice gently imploring me to refrain from doing so.

However, I gave in twice. One of the referrals, at least I believe, had legitimate cause. It was the last day of school, and during these last few weeks of classes, I had received two, telephoned death threats. When Alex said to me on the last day of school as he walked out of class, “Watch your back, Mr. C. You might get shot,” all while pointing a fake finger gun at me, I naturally balked and fell into self-defense mode. I reported it to our administrative team. The kid and his parents were brought in for a formal meeting, which ultimately resulted in Michael’s expulsion from the district. I saw him a few years later when I went to Little Cesar’s to get pizza for my class. He was the cashier. We remembered each other, and no hard feelings were had. I should’ve asked if he graduated. I hope he did.

Maybe Michael’s referral was warranted. His was the second I had ever written. Manny’s was the first. Manny was a pain in the ass of the highest order. He came to class prepared to test me every single day, and I absorbed his behavior and his remarks and his defiance. I was not going to let him beat me. He was a wannabe gangbanger, and he was always decked out in the standard Cholo uniform: oversized white T-shirt, oversized gray jeans, Nike Cortez, shaved head, and little starter mustache. His school supplies were rolled into a small tube and shoved into the back pocket of his 501’s, with a black pen clipped to the lip of the front pocket. It was all he ever brought to school, and in his eyes, it was all he ever needed.

When Manny said something like, “Fuck this shit! I ain’t moving. This is my seat!” I would ignore him. I’d wait a minute or so, then shoot him a look, just to let him know I hadn’t forgot about him. We’d lock eyes, and then he’d move back to his seat. When he was twenty-minutes late to our fifth period class, the class after lunch, I’d ask, “You got a pass?” “I was in the bathroom,” he’d say. Then he would sit at his seat, and look around to see what everyone was doing. He’d then pull out his paper and start drawing, and I wouldn’t stop him. When he’d say, “I don’t get it,” after I had just explained subject-verb agreement, and I’d look to him, sort of relieved that he was asking for help, only to notice that he was drawing a picture of Mickey Mouse smoking a joint, I’d look away and ignore him. He knew what he was doing, but I did, too.
Manny was reacting to something, but I could not figure it out. He was angry, but I could not tell why?

I must’ve tried every geometrical, data driven seating assignment possible for Manny, but wherever I sat him, he always found a way to fuck things up, whether it was tagging on a desk, talking across the room, banging his head against the closet, or just straight up mad-dogging me. It was always something with Manny.
At the semester, I had Manny moved into my sixth period class. I figured that he might benefit from a change of scenery, different faces and personalities. Nothing changed, though, but because it was sixth period, I was able to keep him for after-school detention, something I began to do more often than not.

I was also the school’s yearbook adviser, so I usually had students in my class working on their assignments long after the day was done. During after school detention, Manny sat right in front of the class, as everybody around him worked on their yearbook assignments.

As a teacher back then, I never really used a desk. I liked it this way. Instead, I sat in a chair with wheels and used the student desk in the first row as my home, even when there was a kid sitting there. They never seemed to mind. In sixth period, this desk belonged to Manny, but it was also mine. We shared what little space there was on that little desk, but we also shared the immediate space around us. There was nowhere for him to look other than at my face, and he couldn’t get up and wander because I was always there to remind him that it was a bad idea. I wasn’t mean about it. I didn’t have to be. He didn’t like being there, and he probably figured that if he cooperated, then maybe I’d let him move to another desk. Nevertheless, I kept him after class for nor more than fifteen-minutes, almost on a daily basis. I tried to talk with him, but it was almost futile.

At some point, Manny’s case became personal. I let it get to me, but I couldn’t help it. He began to occupy my mental downtime, time I reserve for not thinking about anything that has to do with teaching. I found myself thinking about him on my drives to and from work. I talked to my girlfriend Jennifer about him. I brought him up with friends. Manny was a rash, and he wasn’t going away.

I take full responsibility for allowing this to happen. I could’ve walked away. A referral cycle would’ve gotten him out of everyone’s hair, and with two-weeks left in the school year, the quality of my own life would’ve greatly improved. Nevertheless, I kept on. I needed to know what was at the center of his conflict. What was it that was causing his rebellion? There was something at work here, and I was determined to find the source. I just didn’t know any better.

One day, with a week left in school, I was sitting directly in front of him, sharing a desk with him. Keep in mind that there were thirty-seven other desks in the room, but we were both sharing one. He was sitting in the built-in chair, and I was on my roller. There was peripheral action going on, as kids were working on their yearbook assignments, while other kids were coming in and out for cameras and pens and questions. But I sat there with Manny, doing my best to strike up even a semblance of dialogue.

I was working on my roll sheets, and Manny had his head down. After a while, I turned around, jumped off my chair, and erased the whiteboard. It had just gotten installed, and I liked that it was easy to clean (teachers are easy). When I was done, I jumped back into the chair and rolled right up to Manny’s desk, our desk. “So how’s your brother?” I asked. I had no knowledge of Manny’s having a brother. I was just asking, and I don’t know why I asked this particular question. He had his head down, but when I asked, he lifted it so that I could see his face. He looked tired, and his eyes were bloodshot and saggy, as if being a full-time asshole was tiring him. He looked like he was barely hanging on. “How do you know I have a brother?” he asked. I was surprised he answered, to be honest. “I don’t. I was just asking. Do you have a brother?” I asked. Manny kept his head up. He was rubbing his eyes. He was never this engaged. I had gotten his attention. “Yeah,” he said reluctantly. “He’s older or younger?” “He’s a senior,” Manny said. Manny was a junior. “Oh, cool! So you have an older brother then? He comes here?” I asked.” “Nah, he goes to Glen,” Manny said.” “What?” I said. “He goes to Glen and you come here? What’s up with that?” “Nah, it’s cuz they have like the things he needs and the classes he needs over there,” Manny said. “Oh,” I said. “Alright. Cool.”

Wow! I casted one final, desperate line, barely baited, and Manny took it. With one-week left in the school year, he fucking took it! I was reeling him, gently and slowly, and he was giving in. I think in this particular moment we were both happy. Both of us had let our guards down a little. We were trucing, and it felt good. We were both aware of it, too. Judging from his answers, Manny felt relieved.

“Oh, he’s a smart kid then, like GATE (gifted kids), and he’s in A.P. and all that shit, huh?” I asked. This is what I genuinely thought. I figured maybe Manny was pissed because he was the “dumb” one and his brother was the “smart” one, and that his parents favored his brother over Manny and he was pissed off about it…simple as that. “Nah, he’s a mute,” Manny said, “and they have special classes for him over there.”

Oh, shit! Things were coming together. Manny was beginning to have reasonable doubt. “Oh, damn. He’s mute? That’s crazy! So you know sign language then, huh?” I asked. Manny looked down a little. “Nah, I don’t know sign language. He’s a deaf, too. He can’t talk,” Manny said.

I was taken aback by Manny’s revelations, and then I knew immediately why Manny was so angry at life. The one guy that he’s supposed to be able to talk to about sex and girls and cars and movies and sports is a deaf mute! His older brother, his hero, is a deaf mute, and Manny can’t even communicate with him because he never bothered to learn sign language. In this moment, I felt for the guy. I really did. “Damn, dude, I’m sorry. “How come you don’t sign language?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Manny said. “I never learned.” I answered with, “Well, it’s not too late.” “Nah, he said.”

The last four-days of school were the most relaxed days I had had in a while. Manny and I, all of sudden, had a student/teacher relationship. We were like friends. We even talked about stuff during class. We couldn’t talk after school because he no longer earned detention. In the end, I saw Manny express a genuine, unforgiving smile.

Manny taught me a huge lesson. He taught me to never give up on a kid. He taught me that all kids, even the kind and gentle ones, are fighting internal and external forces, some more difficult than others, and that as a teacher, I had to be patient with these kids and try to find the source of their sorrow, if possible, so that we can all move forward. My experience with Manny ranks up there as one of the three greatest experiences of my teaching career. As is usually the case, though, I don’t have an update on Manny’s future. He’s probably thirty-eight-years old by now. I just hope he learned sign language and is talking and listening to his brother, and that his brother is able to do the same with him.

 

When the Bell Rings: Classroom Experiences

Virginia

In 1998, when I was first hired as an English teacher/Yearbook Adviser at a Los Angeles area high school, I entered the profession with not even ten-seconds of teaching experience. I was hired during a desperate time in California education, not that things have changed, but in 1998, I slid into the classroom on an “Emergency Credential,” a temporary teaching license distributed to anyone with a heartbeat who expressed interest in teaching. As for me, there was nothing about my future that expressed a genuine interest in teaching. I began teaching because I needed the money.

My first-year schedule consisted of four periods of eleventh grade English and one period dedicated to the construction of the school’s yearbook.The very first period of the day was reserved as my “prep” period. Prep periods provide teachers solitary time to prepare their assignments for the day. I didn’t know it then, but having a prep period at the beginning of the day, at 8 a.m., isn’t too ideal, at least it wasn’t for me. Yeah, it meant my teaching day didn’t start until close to 9 a.m., but it also meant that I would go though the entire day without a break, except for lunch. This proved exhausting, as I quickly found out.

The kids were masters of sapping the life out of me. Answering the same, incessant question is one of the worst parts of teaching. “What’s the date?” “What page?” What’s the date?” “What page?” “Mr. C., can I go the bathroom?” “Can I go, too?” It wore me down and drained a good portion of the energy I reserved for myself, so that when I got home, I was nearly comatose. I think a prep period during the middle part of the day is bit more accommodating and relaxing because a teacher can replenish just enough energy to plow through the rest of the day. A sixth period prep would be would be nice, too, I guess. Anyway, that was my schedule, and it remained so for the four-years I was at Norwalk High.

My first year went well. The kids and I shared connections. I liked them. They liked me. Being the yearbook adviser, too, was nice because it provided me a needed transition from teaching English and writing to a more creative form of teaching and learning.

I was assigned an yearbook staff, and I delegated assignments and sorted through pictures and layouts. It was hands-on work, and I derived great deal joy from it. It also provided another form of relief, one definitely more comical.

There were these two kids, Eli and Carlos. They didn’t really have the yearbook’s interests at heart, but they needed a class to complete their schedule, so their counselors gave them Yearbook. When it came time to giving assignments, they immediately volunteered to cover girls’ volleyball, and when kids volunteered for assignments, I seldom said”no.” I gave them both newly purchased digital cameras and a game schedule and sent them on their way.

A few weeks later, when I reviewed the pictures they had taken, I almost slammed the camera on the floor. The majority of the pictures were zoomed in shots of girls’ asses and of girls bending over. Even the opposing girls got screen time. Some girl was alway picking up a ball or tying her shoe. Pictures of the girls huddling together as a team was a reoccurring shot, too. I said, “C’mon, guys! This isn’t Playboy Magazine! You guys are killing me. I can’t use these. I’ll get fired. You need to get some different shots. You need action shots of them actually playing volleyball.” They were snickering because they knew what they were doing. All in all, it was a fun time, though. I got to know a lot of students. My goal for the yearbook staff was simple: try to get a picture of every single student on this campus into the yearbook, one way or another. We got pretty close, too.

The year buzzed by, and as June rolled in, my introduction to a school’s last week was eye-opening. The students that choked in classes during most of the year had little choice but to ask their teachers for extra-credit. Then there were the students that were always asking to go to other classes to make up work for other teachers or they were asking you to not mark them absent while they took tests in other rooms. A lot of kids were in dire academic positions, and so there was a lot of scrambling and begging. Couple all of this with the fact that a good portion of the student body though has already tuned out and started summer vacation early. There was an issue at every turn, but like a kind-hearted teacher, I tried my best to help my students where ever I could.

Rather than help only a few students, however, I decided to try to help them all. In my English classes, I created an extra-credit assignment for them, a little something to help them earn the grade their parents would be proud of. It was a simple assignment. It had to be. There was no way I was going to read 175 essays with four-days left of school. No way!

On my blackboard, written in white chalk, was the saying, “The life you save may be your own.” The students saw it as they filed in for each period. I had them write it down, and then I said to them, “Your assignment is to write one paragraph about what you think this saying means. Just one paragraph! I don’t want an essay! I don’t want two paragraphs! Just one! It’s due tomorrow. You guys understand? Do you guys understand?” I had to ask twice to make sure it registered. The fair number of “yeahs,” and head nods signaled to me that they got it, and so they stuffed the assignment into their pockets or backpacks and left my room.

The next day, I collected about five paragraphs from second period, fifteen from third period, eight from fifth period (yearbook is fourth period), and twenty from sixth period. Virginia was in my sixth period. She came up to my desk, grabbed the stapler, and crunched together a set of hand-written pages in blue ink. It wasn’t a paragraph. It wasn’t even two paragraphs. Virginia submitted six, full pages of writing, front and back! Her penmanship was alarming, frantic and nervous, even scary. The run-on sentences and jumbled words seemed to be buzzing on the pages, as if they were sliding left and right, edging towards the edges of the pages, ready to jump off to die like lemmings. My only thought was, “Fuck! I have to read all this shit! But I gave her kind look and nicely said, “Thank you, Virginia. I’ll get it back to you tomorrow.” “Ok, Mr. C. Thank you,” she said.

I didn’t look forward to reading Virginia’s paper. I didn’t look forward to reading any of them, but I did. In my students’ defense, it was a strange assignment. I made it up without really thinking it through. It took me years to figure out what the saying meant, and I probably still haven’t nailed it. The answer, I think, comes with experience and maturity, two things most high school student hardly possess. As it turned out, most kids simply took a wild punch at what they thought it meant, and it was ok. I read them all. Some were funny. Some were scary. Some were straight up stupid. Nevertheless, I finished reading them all.

I saved Virginia’s for last because it was the longest one, and after a few beers, I dove in:

“I think what the saying means is that only us can save our own lifes. We are the only ones who can help us. Sometimes others could help but they don’t know what they are doing so they can’t really help. So we have to do it. Like my step-dad. He raped me all the time. I have to help myself. No once can help me and my baby. My best friend doesn’t even know I have a baby because I hided everything with big clothes. My mom thinks I’m not a good girl because she think I have sex with alot of boys. I got pregnant from my step-dad my mom doesn’t know.

And it went on like this, more or less, for six, agonizing, heart wrenching pages. What little energy I had left in the tank had been exhausted. This essay provided the tipping point for my emotional breakdown as a first-year teacher. Virginia was one of my favorite students. She was a sweet girl with a beautiful heart and soul. She had a great personality, and she was incredibly kind and caring. If what she wrote was true, she did not deserve it.

Of course, per Education Code, I had to report this to my superiors. I contacted the one counselor I had gotten to know pretty well. I handed Mrs. Rico the essay. She took it to her office and read it. I saw her again during my sixth period when she called me out to talk to me. She had the essay in her hand. I leaned against the brick wall out side my room and listened to her go on about protocol and about protecting Virginia and getting her help. I cried while she spoke, but it was more like a surrendering.

After school let out, I asked Virginia to stay behind for a few minutes. She did. “Hi, Virginia. How are you?” I said. “I’m good,” she said. I continued. “I read your letter. It’s pretty heavy, man. Is it true?” “Yeah, it’a all true, Mr. C.” “Damn. I’m sorry. I really am.” I said. “You know I had to report it to the counselor or else I get in trouble. Whenever teachers hear something like this, we have to report it. It’s the law.” “I know, Mr. C. I actually wrote it to you because I know that you were going to help me. I knew that you were going to get me help.” She was crying. I held strong.

Virginia saw a therapist the next day or a day after. I’m not sure. Then summer came and I never saw her again. She didn’t return for her senior year. To this day, I have not heard one word concerning her existence. I hope she’s ok, though.

This is how my first year of teaching came to a close. It ended in a gut check. I think I did well to handle the pressure. I’m still in the game, going on my 19th year. I may even be reaching “veteran” status. There are a slew of other incidents that have taken place in-between Virginia’s episode and my 19th year, but those will come, soon. This tale marks the beginning of this new blog series. It will deal with my experiences as a teacher at the high school and college levels. I hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for more.

Alias High Boys’ Soccer: 2016 Undefeated League Champions! What’s Next?

Congratulations to the Alisal Boys’ Varsity Soccer Team for winning the 2015-2016 Gabilan League Championship. This is Alisal’s third title in the four-year existence of the re-aligned MBL Gabilan League, arguably the toughest league in the nation, from its inception in 2012. This year’s Gabilan Title marks the sixth championship in eight-years for the Trojans, a span that has seen them win 105 games.
 
However, as has been the standard for quite a long time at Alisal, the Trojans are reaching for an even more significant title: The California Central Coast Section (CCS) Open Division Championship! For the first time in the history of the CCS, the governing body has created an Open Division for this year’s playoffs, opening the door for a full-on California State Championship that could become a reality as soon as next year. With the San Joaquin Valley and other schools in the more remote parts of California switching their soccer seasons from fall to winter, California is now aligned from San Diego to Northern California, making it a bit easier to organize a legitimate state title.
 
CCS Background
 
In years past, the CCS has assigned divisions to each schools. These assigned divisions were based on school populations. For example, Bellarmine Prep, which has a student population of approximately 3600 students (all boys), and Alisal, which has a population of around 2600 students, co-ed, would be categorized as Division I schools. The CCS then turns to the medium sized schools like Archbishop Mitty, Harbor, and St. Frances, for example. These schools have smaller populations than do DI schools. Thus, they are placed in the Division II category. The smaller schools, like Palma, Pacific Grove, Carmel, and Soledad, to name a few, are put into the Division III category. When it’s all said and done, each school competes against schools that, more or less, have similar student populations.
 
But this year the CCS has decided to make things much more interesting. Now, eight schools, regardless of the size of their student population, can qualify to compete in the newly formed CCS Open Division, the highest division in this part of California. Entry in to the Open Division can be had in two ways: 1. Winning an “A” League championship 2. Having a high number of Power Points (earned by playing and beating A League teams)
 
As a result of their league championship, Alisal has automatically qualified for this year’s Open Division. The seedings for the Open Division playoffs will be revealed tomorrow. Because they are a high seed, Alisal is sure to host their first round match, which according to Prep2Prep.com, will be against Leigh High School. However, this is only an educated guess at this point, as the CCS will have their official seeding meeting tomorrow afternoon. First round games begin on Saturday, February 27, 2016. Stay tuned for more details.
 
Go, Trojans.