He told them about himself, how he had been like them. "I can help you," he said, "I can help you."
One slept. Others stared, bored.
He had planned today's class carefully: His students would relate to him. They would ask his advice about college. Then he would divide them into teams and lead them in a tic-tac-toe spelling game.
They would compete fiercely. Excitedly.
A girl in the front row studied herself in the mirror of her compact. She ignored him.
This was Ricardo Acuna's third week as a teacher. Day after day, it was growing more difficult. He gave the girl a tense look. Then he wrote her name in red on the board: detention.
"Mister! I wasn't putting on makeup." She slammed her books on her desk. Then she crossed her arms and slumped in her seat.
"If you have an education," Ricardo told them all, "you can make a difference in your lives and your families' lives."
The hour passed without any sign that he was making much difference himself. When the bell rang, he forced a smile. "This isn't me," he told a visitor, as he gathered an armload of books and a brown briefcase stuffed with papers.
He walked down three flights of stairs to another classroom, where he would do the same thing all over again, with no better result.
It was starting to take a toll.
Ricardo Lira Acuna, 34, had counted on teaching to be satisfying, even inspiring. He was one of more than 200 interns hired each year by the Los Angeles Unified School District through a special program for mid-career professionals and college graduates without education credentials.
His wife, a teacher, had inspired him to set aside his desire to write full time so he could teach instead. He took six weeks of intensive training. Then, in August 2003, he went directly into a classroom at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz. Though he faced three more years of training classes at night and on weekends, he was now teaching English to kids he wanted to help.
He particularly had in mind kids who were like he had been: poor kids, struggling kids, kids on the margins. But he found problems he had never imagined. Some could barely read. Others were in trouble with the law. One was a mother whose boyfriend was in jail. Several were in gangs. A few were on drugs.
For new interns like Ricardo, guidance for handling such problems was limited. That July, L.A. Unified had discontinued mentoring for interns because of budget cuts. Marshall High School managed to continue the program for eight more weeks. But by the time Ricardo arrived, the mentoring of interns had been left up to four teaching coaches responsible for honing the skills of all the other 197 teachers at the school, as well.
Moreover, to Ricardo, asking for help would have been embarrassing. Instead, he struggled, fretting over what to teach and how to manage students. Paperwork choked him. The training classes drained him. Nightmares haunted him. He argued with his wife. But he had to admit, even to himself, that he had found something meaningful: the kids. Some he had grown to love.
Could he stick it out?
Would he be like the 68% of teachers hired by L.A. Unified in 1997-98 who were still in the classroom five years later? Or would he be like the other 32% who left, some for other school districts and others who quit teaching altogether?
Coming a Long Way From Humble Beginnings
Ricardo Acuna was born in Nogales, Ariz., on the Mexican border, a red-dirt town with blue hills and purple sunsets. His father was a migrant laborer who married, bought a mobile home in a trailer park and worked at produce warehouses. His hands, Ricardo would remember in a poem, were
caked with dirt,
maps with tiny roads of blood
from splinters and metal edges,
burned in the sun.
Frozen in the warehouse.
scented with tomates, calabazas,
mangos, jalapenos, aguacates,
melons, cerezas, limones,
and other produce
you and I have eaten
without knowing by whose hand
we've been fed.
Ricardo's parents sent him to a Catholic preschool and kindergarten, but then the money ran out. So he went to a public school, and his mother drilled him in the alphabet and arithmetic. By fifth grade, his academic resume had grown longer than hers. He took honors English and honors algebra. He idolized Alex P. Keaton, the Michael J. Fox character on "Family Ties" who yearns to go to Princeton.
A math teacher realized Ricardo was so bright that Princeton was no idle dream, and he introduced Ricardo to a businessman who helped him win a scholarship to Lawrenceville Academy, a prep school in New Jersey.
The fall before his junior year, his parents took him to the Tucson International Airport. In his suitcase, he carried two thin sweaters, a crucifix and a new calculator from his mother, though she did not want him to go; she said he was too young.