When he mentioned the names of distant colleges such as Bard, Oberlin, Brown and Williams, he might as well have been talking about the moon. "I was blown away," recalled former student Manuel Lopez. "I had never heard of 99% of these schools." His goal had been to attend Salinas' two-year Hartnell College and become a bank teller. But Shirley "told me I could go to Vanderbilt, I could go to all these places," Lopez said. "No teacher had told me that before."
Shirley rounded up his best students to meet visiting college recruiters. He held after-school and Saturday sessions to help them fill out applications and apply for financial aid. He guided them to write essays that tugged at the heartstrings, telling of illiterate parents who gave them love and hope, of selling vegetables from a truck for a few dollars a day, of missing months of school to work in the fields. "If it doesn't bring a tear to my eye," Shirley said of the essays, "do it again."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
George Shirley obituary -- The obituary of Salinas teacher George Shirley in Sunday's California section gave his age as 61. He was 65. It also omitted the name of a surviving daughter, Kathleen Underwood of Davis, Calif.
Years later, he admitted he actually rewrote some of the essays himself, an ethical breach that would have doomed Shirley as well as the applicant if detected by college admissions officials. But, Shirley explained a few years ago, "it was a war to me, and it was a war hopelessly stacked against them," his students.
After months of anxious waiting, proof of victory began pouring in. Nine in the Class of 1986 were admitted to the Ivy League, including a boy with a 990 SAT. Another student with a 600 SAT but a 97% on his French achievement test won a full scholarship to a small Eastern private college.
With each triumph, Shirley grabbed the victor from class and headed for the principal's office, where the good news would be trumpeted from the PA system. "Today, Princeton University accepted
Newspapers wrote glowingly of Shirley's successes, but resentments quickly surfaced. The principal and district officials hated Shirley's depiction of Alisal as a substandard school that stunted the intellectual development of its students. He received his termination letter the same day he was honored as Alisal's employee of the month.
His students, though dismayed at his firing, took away an important lesson: how one person can make a difference. "He could have just gone through the motions, taught what needed to be taught and never created this big stir," said Miguel Cordova, a graduate of Minnesota's Carleton College and the first in his family to earn a degree beyond high school. "His biggest role was to open our eyes to the importance of getting involved and trying to make a difference wherever you can."
Cordova went to work in programs that prepared and recruited minority college students. Now he helps shape the tests that measure the proficiencies of elementary to high school students in California public schools as a consultant in the state Department of Education.
Lopez went to Bard College in upstate New York and studied pre-law but discovered that education was his true calling. He became a teacher, then a principal who turned around a failing middle school in Soledad, Calif. He returned to the classroom this year as a teacher at Salinas' Alvarez High School.
"He [Shirley] tapped into our dreams," Lopez said recently. "We didn't know we had those dreams. He knew all along we just needed to believe in ourselves."