Teacher Manuel Rustin walks to the stage Tuesday in the Muir High auditorium… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
Manuel Rustin sat among the audience Tuesday in the crowded auditorium at John Muir High School in Pasadena, enjoying the student achievement assembly he helped organize.
Speakers, including state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, lauded the students for their academic gains, cheerleaders performed and the ROTC led the crowd in a flag salute. Then an elaborate ruse was revealed.
Rustin was presented with the Milken Educator Award, an honor given to 39 teachers nationwide this year that comes with a $25,000 prize. The award, presented by the Milken Family Foundation, was created in 1987 to motivate talented teachers in a profession that doesn't typically come with lavish financial rewards.
As his name was called, Rustin bowed his head. Students surrounding him jumped to their feet. The teacher emerged from the crowd, the only collar-and-tie in a mass of hoodies and jackets.
He took a seat on the stage, absorbing the moment.
"When somebody comes into your school and gives you $25,000, you might want to have a few minutes to get your composure," said foundation Chairman Lowell Milken, who made the presentation.
In his remarks, Rustin said the true gift he gets from teaching is the opportunity to shape his students' futures.
"Being a teacher is one of the most rewarding professions that you can have — just being able to connect with people every day and trying to motivate people to do their best," he said. "It beats anything."
He acknowledged the many talented teachers at Muir. And some apparently agreed: After Milken began speaking, several teachers thought their names might be called, though they said Rustin deserved the recognition.
"He took on a leadership role since the day he set foot on the campus," said English teacher Roland Bynum, whom Rustin named as one of the many great instructors at the school.
Rustin, 32, has taught since 2005, when he graduated from Harvard's Graduate School of Education. The Sacramento native is also a proud Bruin, as is evident from the UCLA posters plastered in his classroom.
He teaches world history and economics to sophomores and seniors. He also is the faculty head for the student body association as well as the arts, entertainment and media student group.
"Mr. Rustin teaches in a way that most teachers don't," said Dodanim Olivares,18, a senior.
For one history assignment, for example, Rustin allowed students to rap the Constitution. And when students are frequent tardy, he makes early-morning house calls.
After the hoopla died down, Rustin retreated to his second-floor classroom, where posters of the rapper Tupac Shakur and revolutionary Che Guevara adorned the walls.
The Milken Family Foundation packed up its van and made the two-hour drive to Cathedral City High School, where it would put on another performance.
This time, the unsuspecting honoree was Carrie Carnes, a math teacher. The first-time expectant mother's teaching goes beyond the classroom. Carnes, who has been teaching for a decade, runs marathons with her students and even travels on college tours with the sophomores.