A student who looks like he was born to slam-dunk bounded up to teacher Jerome Flores in the halls at Gardena High School.
"Hey, Mr. Flores! Congratulations on being Los Angeles' mathematics teacher of the year!" the towering student said with an approving grin.
Flores, who lives in North Long Beach, was recently named outstanding high-school math teacher by the Los Angeles City Teachers of Mathematics. He was chosen from a field of 13 secondary super-teachers within the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Flores said the honor was more than just a pleasant surprise. He has realized his dream of becoming a top-notch teacher in the very place he first dreamed it.
Flores, 37, is an alumnus of Gardena. Twenty years ago, as a junior, he decided that he wanted to follow the path taken by his own math teacher and mentor, Robert McHugh.
Today McHugh chairs Gardena's math department, and he and his award-winning former student are colleagues, engaged in the same edifying business--teaching youngsters the beauty and utility of mathematics. Both men are aware, as their students may not yet be, that a great teacher can shape lives.
Flores remembers the things about "Mr. McHugh" that impressed him as a teen-ager.
One was the logic with which he organized the often complex material.
The other was McHugh himself.
"He was very genuine and warm to the students," Flores recalled. "Some of my teachers were really abominable. They wouldn't even face you. They'd treat your grade as if it were just a number."
Superficially, Flores and McHugh are a study in contrasts. Flores, who has the long, layered hair of a rock musician, loves rock 'n' roll almost as much as he loves math. His is an irreverent sense of humor--he named one of his many rock bands Jerry's Kids. McHugh, 58, sports a white crew cut and delivers his witticisms with a wry, almost formal air.
But the bonds between the men far outweigh the differences.
McHugh first met Flores as a sophomore. Flores, McHugh recalled, was a skinny, lively youngster, who stood out in the class if only because of his ethnicity.
"At that time it was very unusual to see a Mexican kid come into second-semester geometry," McHugh said. Flores, too, remembers that most of his academic-track classmates were either Anglo or Asian-American.
Flores wasn't the best student in the class, but he was a good student, his former teacher said. "I thought he had great potential." Flores also had a lovely personality that appealed to both peers and teachers, according to McHugh.
As McHugh sat after school in his deserted classroom, methodically grading a stack of the quizzes he gives daily, he said that the upbeat attitude that Flores had as a youngster now makes him a delightful colleague.
"That's a problem we have in teaching," McHugh said. "We sometimes get cynical. I'm constantly having to say to teachers, 'That glass is half full, not half empty.' I never have to say it to him.
"He enjoys teaching--it's obvious--and his students enjoy him. They mutually encourage each other. They encourage him to continue teaching, and he encourages them to stay in math."
Five Years at Gardena
Flores taught at David Starr Jordan High School in Watts for 11 years before joining the Gardena faculty five years ago.
Flores said he finds pleasure in performing in the classroom, just as he does in performing with a band. "It's sort of a turn-on to get up in front of a group," he said. McHugh agreed. "Most of us are showoffs," the older man said.
Whether teaching basic math or calculus, Flores tries to make contact with his students by alluding to things that matter to them outside the classroom, including music and movies. And he isn't afraid of risking an occasional mistake while working an unfamiliar problem on the board. "If I make a mistake, that's good--as long as I don't make them all the time," he said.
Latino Role Model
Flores is a role model for Latino students at Gardena. And he actively encourages Latino, American Indian and black students to study math, science and engineering as adviser to the campus chapter of MESA (Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement). MESA is a statewide group that seeks to increase minority participation in these fields by visiting college campuses, taking part in math and science competitions and other activities. About 30 students are active in the Gardena program, more than twice as many as last year, Flores said.
Flores, McHugh said, "sees--as I saw in him--potential in all these kids, whatever their backgrounds."
When Flores was still in high school, McHugh gave him an after-school job as a handyman looking after apartments that McHugh and his wife own. "He worked after school as he had time or I had money," McHugh said. "When there wasn't anything to do there, he graded my papers."
Flores continued working for the McHughs throughout college, managing their property when they were out of the country on sabbatical.