Two teachers changed my life. My brilliant and charismatic 8th-grade English teacher at John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Cupertino, Mr. Garland, taught us how literature could allow us to see the world through the eyes of another person, and bring us closer together. He also taught us how to write—to start with the grabber sentence that caught the reader’s attention; to craft each paragraph to flow gracefully into the next; to carefully choose each word not just for clarity, but also for how it touched the heart; and to finish with a slam-bang wrap-up.
In 2011, I wrote an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee about how Sara Kruzan had been forced into prostitution at the age of 13, how she had shot to death her pimp in self defense at the age of 16, and how she had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That op-ed caught the attention of Attorney General Kamala Harris, who asked to have the case re-opened, resulting in the prison gates miraculously opening for Sara. The case ultimately influenced the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in 2012, declared sentences of life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional.
Words, and ideas, had taken flight—thanks to Mr. Garland. In 9th grade, at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, when I first walked into the classroom of Mrs. Davies, little did I realize that neither I nor the other students would speak a word of English again in her
Spanish class for the next two years. Mrs. Davies had grown up in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, and she taught us how the Lincoln Brigade of volunteer Americans had fought the good fight against the fascists and Nazis in Spain, but tragically lost. And she inspired us, like Don Quixote in the epic tale of Cervantes, to “Dream the Impossible Dream.”
I am a physician, and every day I treat my Hispanic patients in their own language, allowing them to express not only their deepest concerns about their health in intimate terms, but to share with me their dreams and aspirations for their childrens’ educations and their futures. Another lengua, or language, has allowed me to reach people of another culture—thanks to Mrs. Davies.
An inspiring teacher can transform the life of a student. Tragically, however, the opposite is also true—a single incompetent teacher can ruin a life, driving an adolescent to dropping out and prison.
When I was a kid, our schools were run by school boards that could hire the best teachers and ask the worst to leave. Now, California’s public schools are run by the teachers unions, and have lost all supervision of the teachers. Seniority counts for everything.
Why does seniority count for so much, and merit for so lttle? Why can’t school boards, parents, and even students have more to say about which teachers are retained?
Nothing can ever be more precious, no one more loved, than our children. It is time now for a Lincoln Brigade of parents to fight to reclaim our schools—and this time ! vamos a ganar!
Editing notes—the first of the two exclamation points in Spanish is supposed to be upside-down.
The word “lengua” is intended to be italisized, as is the phrase !y vamos a ganar!
And Junior High Schools have become “Middle Schools.” My own vote would be to use the old term, but I don’t feel strongly about it.
Alan Bonsteel, M.D, is president of California Parents for Educational Choice.
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