Marvilla urged him to stick it out. "Let me help you," she said. She offered to do his homework for him.
"What is the point if I don't do it myself?" he said.
She felt helpless. "Well, maybe you should just quit." It was a challenge. She thought it might turn him around. "You can't handle it."
CONFRONTING THE PROBLEM
Part of the reason I became a teacher is because I wanted to connect with students, to find them something to get them interested and excited. With Jeremy, over time, I have just wanted to give up on him.
-- Ricardo interview
Jeremy, who had been cutting class regularly, showed up one day with a root beer.
"No drinks," Ricardo said and took it away. As he turned to put the bottle down, he heard laughter.
Jeremy would later say he had felt hot and thirsty. He had opened another bottle of root beer and was gulping it.
"You're not taking my drink," he said defiantly.
Ricardo would not forget the words. His tie felt tight. His cheeks grew hot. He squinted and crimped his brow. He blurted: "You're f---ing it up for everyone."
He surprised himself. He said it again. "You're f---ing it up for everyone."
He glared at Jeremy, then at Gusto. It was always either of them, he would remember thinking. Either Jeremy or Gusto.
"Just leave," he told Jeremy, loudly. "Just get out."
Jeremy grabbed his backpack and his skateboard. He strolled out, taking his root beer with him.
Ricardo's nostrils flared. He clenched his teeth. With his eyes, he followed Jeremy out the door, staring him down.
Gusto's disruptions became more frequent. He chatted. He joked. He, too, stopped doing his homework. He would not sit still. He squirmed and walked around during class.
Ricardo pulled Gusto's desk up to his own.
Each day, Gusto sat facing Ricardo with his back to his classmates. But it did not work. He turned and whispered until he had someone's attention. Then he joked some more.
He refused to read.
Ricardo told him he would flunk.
Gusto said he didn't care.
I'm going to fail anyway, he thought. Why even try?
"He doesn't like me no more," Gusto told a visitor afterward. "I've been bugging him a lot. I get in trouble. It's too boring.
"I can tell he doesn't really know how to run his class. He's, like, too professional, with his tie, or whatever."
Mayra was Ricardo's bright spot. She struggled with her vision, her spelling and her grammar, but, when he helped her, she responded.
Somehow, despite her blurred vision, she was able to recognize him among the students and teachers who crowded the hallways, and she always said, "Hi, mister."
Every night in her prayers, she asked God to bless him.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
About This Series
Erika Hayasaki observed Ricardo Acuna's classes for more than 40 hours. She interviewed him repeatedly and visited his home. Her story also is drawn from observations as well as home visits and interviews with his wife, Marvilla Bonilla, and students Gusto Jimenez, Mayra Ramirez and Jeremy Sentance. Their actions, words, thoughts and emotions were either witnessed by Hayasaki or described directly by them.
Hayasaki visited and conducted interviews five times at the Los Angeles Unified School District intern summer training program. She also interviewed David and Carla Sentance, Jeremy's parents; Milagro Ramirez, Mayra's mother; Bob Grakal, a teaching coach at Marshall High School; Kathleen O'Connell, an assistant principal at Marshall High School; Kristin Szilagyi, chairwoman of Marshall High School's English department; Beth Irizarry, an intern at Marshall; Erin Winter, an intern at Wilson High School; Mary H. Lewis, the director of the L.A. Unified intern program; Susan Stealey and Nancy Bell, program instructors; Arnie Weiner, a program director; Emily Feistritzer, president of the National Center for Alternative Certification; and Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University.
Acuna provided screenplays, poetry, journal entries, lesson plans and intern assignments reflecting his thoughts, concerns and workload. Some students, including Ramirez, also provided journal entries, poetry and class assignments.
As his first semester drew to a close, Ricardo Acuna agonized over whether he was truly helping his students and whether his inexperience was doing more harm than good. Was his presence in the classroom pointless? He wondered if there was a better way to make a difference.