The spelling, the grammar, were still awful. But there were signs of a thaw. "You have helped me to become a better writer and you helped me to develop a passion and a love for writing," she concluded. "Please don't give up on me and my fellow students."
He recovered, and returned to school the next year. The cancer had revealed a gift. The View Park students had come to care deeply about him.
"That lifted him up like nothing else," said his wife, Susan.
Thomas had Holmes for senior composition. He would tell her, "You can do it. . . . Don't put yourself down."
And then, as the end of her senior year approached, she had a breakthrough. "I took my time and paid attention and got help from him . . . and actually understood exactly what I needed to do.
"I remember him telling the whole class that I did an outstanding job . . . and I think I remember him reading it in class. He told me there was still room for improvement, but he told me that I really understood what I needed to do and did it."
Thomas went on to Santa Monica College, where she said she aced the freshman composition exam. She is looking forward to transferring to a four-year college and eventually opening her own business. She still returns to View Park to visit Holmes.
"He's a brilliant teacher, a brilliant man," she said. "He really helped me change my ways, at home and at school." He did it, she said, "by being himself, by not sugarcoating anything, by telling me that if I didn't get my act together . . . I wasn't going to amount to anything. . . . He pretty much opened my eyes to see I could amount to something, and I am going to amount to something."
As winter rolled into spring, Holmes was increasingly pleased by the progress of his senior class.
He prepared a series of lessons about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Although Holmes has little but contempt for the multicultural curriculum taught at many schools, he has focused many of his lessons at View Park on African American themes.
When his students became interested in the Democratic presidential primary, and especially in Obama, Holmes saw an opportunity.
He used Obama's public statements as launchpads for the students to write critical essays, focusing on whether Obama had been consistent in his opposition to the Iraq war.
Late in the year, Holmes' focused the students on statements by Obama in 2004 when he said he and Bush didn't have "much of a difference" on Iraq. Was he being inconsistent when later, in his presidential campaign, he focused on his pre-war opposition to the conflict? "He's pandering for votes," one girl said. "That's horrible."
Holmes, as usual, didn't take sides. But he liked the sophistication of the word "pandering." "That's great," he told the class.
As the school year drew to a close, Schwartz, the principal, was pleased: Almost 90% of the 2008 graduating class had been accepted to four-year colleges. Eventually, 98.5% would commit to a four-year or two-year college. Of 67 graduates, nearly a third were admitted to a University of California campus, including nine to UC Berkeley. One enrolled at Stanford and several at historically black colleges such as Clark, Hampton and Tuskeegee.
Holmes' students were no longer failing. Of 21 who made it through the whole year (five transferred to other classes or left the school altogether), two will get A's and nine Bs. There will be no Fs. Holmes said that if you peel away the few "off the charts" students at Harvard-Westlake, the level of A and B work at View Park is comparable.
In class, he gives them the assignment for their final exam, which is to be an essay either defending or attacking affirmative action. For the next 90 minutes, he will challenge the students' ideas, forcing them to think, as he sometimes says, "until their brains hurt."
Class ends with the announcement that next Tuesday will be devoted to independent work on the final exam essays. Holmes will be back next year, but only to work on curriculum and teacher training.
So this was the last regular class of his career.
There are no fireworks, no speeches, no round of applause. Just this: As he walks out the door and heads to the parking lot, Phil Holmes knows that today he delivered a good lesson. He didn't waste a second. He made the students think.