Tag Archives: Education

Two Students

When I was first hired as the vocal music teacher by Natomas Charter School in March 2001, I told the executive director that I would only commit to staying for five years at the most.  I had other adventures ahead and believed that classroom teaching was not my passion. Then, I met the children.

In August 2001, I was introduced to the seventh graders who would become “my class,” the Class of 2007.  I was assigned the role as their class advisor with the 7th grade English teacher.  During our first discussion, they said they had heard rumors that most classes had class advisors come and go throughout their time in school, and how they hoped the two of us would stay until they graduated. Seeing their wide, hopeful eyes, and getting caught up in the emotion of the moment, I promised them that I would stay until they graduated. There went any hope of leaving after five years, because they would stay at Charter for six years.  I had already completed my first school year, so this would mean I would be there at least seven years.   And stay I did.

Through difficult, major events in my life, I stayed.  Through challenges with my first line supervisor, I stayed.  Through everything, I stayed until they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas.  I couldn’t have been more proud of our young people.  The person who began the journey as class advisor with me left to start a family, so there were new faces along the way with whom I shared the responsibilities and joys of these fine young people.

The truth is, I don’t know if my contribution to this class was very dynamic, but if nothing else, I was there at every class meeting, at their senior prom, at every major event in which they participated.  As their senior year came to a close, I was more than ready to leave my position, but was asked to stay another year, hoping things would get better.  I reluctantly agreed.  It was 2007, my children had graduated, and I thought my job was over.  I stayed one more year, but by the end of 2008, I could not stay any longer.  Things had changed so dramatically that I knew it was time for me to move onto another leg of my journey, so I resigned, and went into private practice as a vocal teacher.

My job with this class wasn’t over, though.  Recently, I ran into two of my students who told me that they had gotten to know each other in their senior year and now, almost five years later, they were getting married.  I was so happy for them because they are genuinely lovely individuals, and I knew they would make a marvelous couple; animated, but marvelous.  Several weeks later, I got a message from them saying the minister they had originally engaged had flaked on them.  They reflected to me that they were just as glad, because this person clearly had no appreciation for who they were as individuals.  They said they remembered that I was an ordained minister and wondered if I would do the honors of marrying them, especially since I had known them for nearly half their lives.  Needless to say, I was thrilled at the offer and jumped at the chance.

Today is their rehearsal for tomorrow’s wedding.  I will be in the presence of not just two, but six of my students who will stand on the altar as bride, groom, maid of honor, best man, and two honor attendants from the NCS Class of 2007.  Clearly, my job is not over.  The history we built together has moved beyond the classroom to their adulthood.  It seems as though I will continue to watch my young people grow up, get married, have children, perhaps even grandchildren if I live that long, remembering that first day in seventh grade when they sat looking at me with those big, hopeful eyes.  Once again, I get to see two of them with big, hopeful eyes, only this time gazing at one another seeing their future together in one another.

My students have gone to prestigious universities, begun marvelous careers in their chosen fields, and started families.  They are fully adults now at the age of 23 beginning their own adventures in life.  I am so proud of them all and hope to watch as they have their precious moments grow in quality and quantity.

When We Began…

wunderlich+When we began our vocal lessons, my student had a challenging history with singing.  During the first show he had ever done, he was asked not to sing out loud, but to simply lip synch the words, because he didn’t appear to be able to carry a tune.

He came into my current show late, and unfortunately, his mind still replayed those old tapes he had learned in his previous experience.  He arrived at my home to catch up on all the music in the show and his mother warned me about this fifteen year old’s challenge with pitch.

After about twenty minutes, he not only sang in excellent pitch, but could remember everything I’d taught him after only one or two times listening to what I was modeling. 

I’ve never thought of myself as a great teacher.  I honestly don’t think I am.  I’m good, I suspect, but not great.  What I can do, however, is give people reminders of what they already know how to do.  I’m a great piece of reference material. 

“When you speak, does your voice go all over the place like an out of control rollercoaster?  No.  That’s because you can hear pitch well enough to modulate your voice appropriately.” 

That’s all he needed.  When he realized that he’d been using his listening skills to hear pitch for his entire life, the rest was cake.

I just got a call from the director of a show at the theatre where I work most often.  My student was recognized for having one of the best voices of the young men who auditioned.  They were stunned with his progress.

I reminded the director that it was my student’s work that got him to that point in only a few months.  He’d chosen to utilize the skills he already had in a new way.  The benefit for him… and the theatre… is that his work paid off.

I am very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to work with wonderful young people who are at various levels of security.  Certainly, there is a talent differential to be considered, but what I’m learning is that if they have permission to succeed, they most often will.

So, here I am basking in the joy of seeing yet another of my students feel his sense of accomplishment.  What a great day!

My Stretch of De-Nile

Our children.

Our children.

Until today, I have not commented on the recently reported exclusion of ethnic children from the pool at The Valley Club in the gated country club, The Huntington, in Philadelphia, PA.   After a great deal of soul searching, I have realized that I simply did not want to address an issue that is so personal and so societal.  It’s time to open the gates of my heart on this subject.

The children, from Creative Steps day camp, many of whom are Black and Latino, were invited to leave the premises.  It is alleged by the children that they were subjected  to racial comments made by adults, parents of Caucasian children already at the club. 

There is no reason whatsoever to question the veracity of what these children heard.   There have been no outright denials by the club administration.  There have been no comments from anyone saying it isn’t so.

That brings me to the pain I am feeling for these children.  In the same year that the first African-American president took his oath of office, a charming little Black child had to hear a White person ask, “What is that little [Black child] doing here?”

I cannot imagine the shock that young gentleman and his peers must have felt upon hearing these outrageous words.  I cannot imagine how that one woman, in all her ignorance and arrogance, has affected this young fellow in his self-esteem and his perception of the world around him.

Years ago, my now ex-wife and I moved into a neighborhood that was predominantly White.  Although my children’s mother is Caucasian, I am Mexican, with dark brown skin and black hair.  After a bit of time in the mother group in our neighborhood, she was asked to resign her membership.  Although she was never given a clear answer as to why, she was told finally that our family didn’t fit in their group setting.

My wife and children were devastated at the time.  This was in 1978. 

Nothing, for us, was the same.  I eventually moved after nearly twenty-eight years of residency in that home.  I was a good neighbor and a loving friend, even to those who were part of the group who banned us from the club. 

My family now consists of Latinos, Caucasians, Blacks, and Asians.  We are a rainbow coalition all by ourselves. 

Interestingly enough, the most challenging part of our family are the whitest of the lot.  This is nothing more than an fascinating observation. 

If one is so deluded to believe that small children of any color are a threat, then it’s possible she should be in treatment or on medication for her paranoia.  If one is so ignorant of what amazing things all young people are capable of, then he should get out of everyone else’s way while we prepare these creators of tomorrow for their horrendously difficult task of correcting our blunders. 

My children shouldn’t have had to hear their friends’ mothers shun us.  The children at The Huntington shouldn’t have been emotionally battered by cruel ignoramuses.  But, these events happened. 

Since they did happen, we should make this a teaching moment by sharing with our children that ugliness like this is intolerable at every level.  Whether it’s color, accent, size, wealth, education, or sexual orientation, hatred is all the same.  It’s vile and it’s unacceptable.  Period.

Depression in “The Busy”

Like many people who have been diagnosed with mild bipolar disorder, I truly do enjoy those manic phases in which I’m so very busy doing so very many things.  Since my manic phase is usually exhibited in the area of spending, it’s not much of an issue for me since we don’t have a lot of money to spend.  My diagnosis has always been considered mild, at best, thankfully.  I’ve survived for many years without medication and have been fairly successful in operating at this level, with some major and minor exceptions along the way.


The many faces of manic-depression

My challenge has always been the depressive phase.  The drops in energy and desire to accomplish anything, the lack of motivation to the point where important things go by the wayside, have  been the hardest part of this journey.  Interestingly enough, being married has helped in that arena because now I know it’s not just me who would be affected by my inability to get things done.  I can talk about it with my husband and just in the talking, there seems to be a switch turned on in my head.

People have always said I tend toward being a prideful person.  I don’t like asking for help.  I don’t like being perceived as weak.  I don’t like needing assistance at all.  So, when I actually reached out to someone for help, it usually meant things had gotten quite out of hand.  That’s not so true any more.  Now, I reach out much more easily because I know I can often avoid the “out of hand” moments by doing so.  

Since I’ve been married, though, those times have been even fewer and farther between.   Sometimes, I’ll just say to David, “I’m having a tough time getting through the bills.” 

Now, one must understand, that doesn’t mean I’m asking for help from him because he has no idea how I balance the budget or pay the bills.  It simply is my trigger to get my pride moving.  That pride, as questionably healthy a motivator as it may be, seems to get my juices flowing in such a way as to get my bills paid. 

I’ve always been very busy in my life.  Whether I work outside the home or from home, I’ve always kept myself active and connected to the outside world.  

Through my writing now, I’ve been able to communicate what’s going on in my life and keep things more even-keeled. 

Now that I’m not teaching in the classroom any longer, I am still busy with shows, writing, teaching at home and with my family, but it is all on my time now.  I have found that my mania and depression have not been as severe in some ways, or lasted as long when episodes to arise.  My awareness has been half the battle.

Between my faith and my study on dealing with my condition at home, I’ve been pretty successful, actually… surprisingly.

I still struggle at times, but they are always struggles I win. 

Those of us who are “The Busy,” as I’ve called us, and suffer with bipolar disorder seem to make our lives look effortless.  We can, for the most part, show our disorders in our rapid, over-animated speech and at other times our gloomy affect, but overall, we are effective, contributing members of society.   

This condition must be brought to light and spoken about so that the stigma of suffering with a disorder of mental health will disappear.  I am not afraid of my condition nor am I afraid of how people will perceive me any longer.  That left many years ago. 

Through education and treatment, people like me with bipolar disorder are finding it easier to operate in their daily lives.  It’s about time. 

I know I’m grateful for my life and the ability to stay busy.

We Do Grow Up

n520903918_1585556_3250033This evening, I went to see some of my former students graduate from the school where I used to teach vocal music.  There were some definite surprises for me there.

When I began teaching in 2001, it was a fluke.  A friend of mine called me on the phone in the middle of my retirement and said, “James, we really need a singing teacher here.”  

I had sworn many years ago never to teach in a classroom setting.  Of course, I never thought I could since I hadn’t completed my degree, much less acquire a teaching credential.  This was, however, a charter school that specialized in the arts, so I didn’t need a credential.  I did have plenty of experience, having had my first student in 1977.  I had directed vocal music regularly since the early 1990’s.  I was as prepared as someone could be without the credential, I thought.

The day I began, the co-founders asked me why I wanted to teach there since I was so over-qualified?  Ah, how things were to change.

As the years progressed, I realized I had a lot to learn, but as I had often been told, teaching came naturally to me.  As my supervisor at the time told me, I was an intuitive teacher.  While that was a plus at that point, this same person eventually decided that pedagogy was much more important. 

I resigned my position in 2008 when I realized that the school had changed so dramatically that these adjustments were sucking the life out of what was once a dynamic and formidible educational institution.  The spirit of our organization was barely flickering any more.  I had to get out.   I had lost my voice with the administration and for someone like me who spent his life helping others find their voices, this was untenable to me.

As I was having my final meeting with the Executive Director, he offered me two beginning vocal classes.  He wanted some “new blood” for the other vocal music classes.   His words, not mine.  It was of no interest to me at all.  This school was breaking my heart.  Teachers expressed they felt the same way, but were afraid to leave in this economy.  Parents said they wanted to change schools, but knew that most other schools were more dangerous for their students.  The children themselves said there was something missing that was there in the past.  Everyone got the same message except the administration.

Other than a couple of brief visits to the campus, I really haven’t been back since I left.  I attended several performances.  I couldn’t help but think, “This is why they wanted me gone, so they could have this level of quality at their school?”  Again, I was not alone in this assessment.

As I arrived at the school this evening, teachers, students, and parents greeted me with the most genuine happiness I remember in a long, long time.  If I had to call it anything, it was almost relief that I felt as they hugged me. 

“Nothing is the same since you left, Mr. Hernandez.” 

“There’s been a spark missing since you left, James.” 

These are actual quotes I heard tonight.  Even the Executive Director did not seem as joyful as he had been in years past as he sat on the dais. 

Everything from the singing of the National Anthem to the keynote address was vanilla pudding.  It was Wonder Bread.  It was white rice.  It was beige.

This was no longer a performing and fine arts academy.  It was a traditional, plain school. 

Yet, the one thing that amazed me was that with all the changes notwithstanding, the children have grown up to be creative, motivated people.  I attribute that to the tenacity of the amazing teachers on campus. 

They have fought valiantly against the brutal criticism and desperate neglect offered by the Program Coordinator and Co-Founder of the school.  Both of these administrators have their priorities firmly established although they have not considered the needs of the people involved.  It is all about the awards and recognition and scores.  The people, with spirits and minds and hearts, seem to have become functionaries to the administrators involved. 

The Program Coordinator, in all her ingenuous behaviors, is not above being obviously phony in public when everyone knows how she really feels.  I was embarrassed for her.

Yet, the children advance.  What is it in them that allows them to grow in this way?  They are like roses growing in the desert.  They are like albino shrimp living in the deepest sulphuric recesses of the ocean.  They are strong and resilient and protected by really great parents and phenomenal teachers.

I have held my tongue for a year, and now, at long last, I am speaking my mind in an open forum.  It feels great! 

God bless the children for their success.  May their journey be full of joy and wisdom enough to learn from their challenges and celebrate their accomplishments.

I won’t be back for another graduation without a specific invitation.  My time there is over.  They do grow up.  What’s surprising is so do I.

Why Is Hate So Easy?

In every regional idiom of our American English language, we have many ways to say, “I hate that.”   It’s as simple as a sound and a face, “Ugh,” with our mouth and eyes and nose looking as though we have just smelled something phenomenally foul.   Why are we surprised when our government says the same thing to us?  Our elected officials are selected by us and reflect our values.

15488-07at“You may not marry.”

“You may not serve your country with pride.”

“You may not receive adequate health care or education.”

“You may not be considered beautiful.”

Those who have had to live with the impact of these messages are all being told that we have no value in segments of society and that our needs and dreams are unnecessary to the overall happiness of our country. 

Why does this disregard, discrimination, and distrust come so easily to us as a nation?  At this point, with the media having such a rich influence in our lives and policies, we cannot claim ignorance any longer.  We are making these choices consciously and with the full understanding of how our fellow citizens are being affected by these choices.  We are fully responsible legislatively, culturally, and personally. 

And, yes, it is personal. 

To someone I love very much, when she is told by a physician that he doesn’t have time to discuss why he is making the determination he is on her health, he is saying that because she is brown and poor, she doesn’t deserve compliance with the hypocratic oath he took when he became a physician.  This person is going to be allowed to continue his practice for many years to come, I’m sure, because who is going to listen to his painfully neglected patient? 

When only twelve percent of our nation’s states have acknowledged the love and commitment between two gay people, we are saying that a large majority, 78%, of our people feel that our lives together as a couple have no meaning.   These 78% of states are being supported by the United States Supreme Court when they said that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy was not unconstitutional at the national level, and when the California Supreme Court did not overturn Proposition 8.

It’s as simple as not receiving an e-mail from a teacher.   When a parent writes and asks for information that will assist her in supporting the assignments the instructor gives, and all she receives is silence, the teacher is saying, “Your child has no value to me.  His education doesn’t count and what happens to him at the end of the year is of no consequence.”

Here in Sacramento, there was a shock jock who stated that if his son ever wore high heels, he, as a father, would beat that child with a shoe.  This was not something he said in the privacy of his home.  This person said this statement on the air and laughed about it. 

Now, we must face the truth that one of our citizens has walked into a museum honoring the memory of those who lost their lives during World War II and shot someone to make the statement that the shooter believes that there was no holocaust.   

When does it click, my friends?  When do we get that we cannot allow this to continue?  When does everyone in our country become full Americans to everyone else?   We have waited for 232 years.  Isn’t that long enough?

It’s time we decide, consciously and lovingly, that we will only tolerate respect in our homes and on our streets.  We will only permit those who understand the genuine value of every single person in our country to be elected to our legislative and judicial offices.   Only those who recognize the critical need for an exceptional education for every child, even when it’s difficult to accomplish, will be allowed to receive a teaching credential.  Every physician will be personally held accountable for ensuring that each of their patients understands his or her medical situation.

Simply put, we must only allow love to guide us.  Everywhere.  Always.

A Child’s Voice

As someone who has been teaching vocal music since the late 1970’s, I know how empowering it is for someone, anyone, to find their voice.  In the last eight school years of teaching sixth through twelfth graders in a classroom setting, I have had those lessons amplified exponentially.

Watching Oprah’s show today about bullying, particularly sexual bullying, I was brought to a new level of awareness, especially in light of my most recent post about the progress we have made since the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969.   My feelings on this subject are fervent and immediate. 

Children today are being bullied by taunts of “fag,” and “faggot,”  and many other derogatory terms for homosexuals.  It is my opinion that even worse than the derogatory words being hurled at them is that children are being called, “gay,” as though it was something of which the child must be ashamed, whether they are gay or not. 

When I was young and being taunted with the terms of the day, “sissy,” “homo,” and “queer,”  we were taught to just ignore the cruelties.  Even as I was rearing my own children, I taught them the same lesson.

What I didn’t know at the time is that this guidance is a way of saying to the child that they should ignore how they are feeling, allow others to say what they will, and pretend that there is no impact on them from others’ actions and words.

We know better now.  We recognize that words can hurt. 

Carl's and Jaheem's mothers on Oprah.

Carl's and Jaheem's mothers on Oprah.

Eleven-year-olds Carl Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera, the latter of whom, incidentally, carries my birth mother’s surname, committed suicide because they could no longer hold up under the weight of their fellow students’ obscene cruelty.   These two boys, from different cultures and different cities, each, on their own, decided that death would be better than living the lives they had at school. 

For each parent reading this, a child chose death.  That means something to us.  We immediately go to that place of imagining how horrific it would be if our child were to take his or her life.  Yet, do we imagine being the parent of the bully? Do we ask ourselves, “Would my child stand by and allow that type of bullying to happen without saying a word, let alone perpetrating or supporting the abuse?”

How often have we heard, “Kids will be kids,” or “Kids can be so cruel?”  A million times; yet, our children are dying at increasing numbers. 

As a society, we are obligated to see what is truly happening and teach our children to have a voice.  We must, today, right now, speak with our children and let them know what our expectations of them are in the same way we do about cigarettes, drugs and sex. 

“You may not bully other children in the classroom, on the playground or anywhere else.  If you see another child being bullied or called names in person or on-line, I expect you to take some action.  It is worse to know that you did nothing and someone was injured or died than being called a ‘snitch.'” 

We must talk with our children about being bullied.  It is no longer acceptable to allow our children to “toughen up and take it,” or “ignore it and it will go away.”  We must teach them to develop and maintain their sense of self-worth, as well as their priority for self-preservation.

In the school where I taught vocal music, there was a student who was referring to something bad as, “gay.”  I am a gay man and felt obligated as a teacher, minister and citizen to educate that student about the impact that this reference had.  It was clear that there were other students who understood what I was saying, but there were those who simply did not understand until I used some vivid examples.

They understood then.

It is not enough to know that our child is not a bully.  It is not enough to believe that it is happening elsewhere.   We must address this issue directly.  We cannot neglect the welfare of all children.

I can tell you firsthand that it is happening at the school where I taught.  It was happening daily.  There are minimal actions taken by the administration to stem that tide; however, by my assessment, it is not enough.  Our school is actually a mild example of what is happening in a more obvious and dynamic way across the country.

For those of you who are parents, I’m asking that you speak to your child about this topic.  Perhaps, you can watch the Oprah episode with your child.  If you see your child withdrawing, make sure you speak with them directly.  Contact a mental health professional if you sense anything is significantly and consistently wrong.  Watch their eating and sleeping habits.  Have their friendships ended?  Are they quieter than ever before? 

For those of you who are teachers, listen closely to the language your students are using.  If they call one another, “fag,” even as a joke, one must understand that it is the same as using other vulgar terms to refer to our brothers and sisters.

I know that everyone becomes very busy in their day, but our children are telling us who they are and how they feel if we take the time to listen.  The parents and teachers I know are incredible individuals, down to the last one.  We get busy, though.  It’s the nature of our lives. 

Sometimes, we must simply take a deep breath and listen with a new ear.  That is, categorically, how our children learn to value their own voices… by being heard by those who love them.

Together, we can be secure that our children are safe, heard, proud and strong while making sure we no longer hear about a fifth or sixth grader who has committed suicide.