I knew I would become a teacher the day I heard a man, who couldn’t read, say ‘cat’ in Spanish.
I had just arrived in Mexico and was living in a Franciscan monastery. I could barely speak Spanish, and I had never thought about how to teach someone to read in English. But one day, Sister Charity saw me and said, “Hey, you look like you can read. Go teach Don Maximo in the house over there.”
She’s the kind of lady you couldn’t say no to because, when she found out she had a parishioner who didn’t have a bed, she gave up her own bed and slept on the cement. I never thought about teaching anyone reading in English, let alone Spanish, which I couldn’t even speak.
I met Don Maximo, who was in a wheelchair. He had worked his whole life and never had a chance for an education. It worked. One day, he fell off a ladder when he was 50 years old and broke his neck. Mother Charity thought that, if he could read and write, maybe he could get a desk job. That was my part.
So every day, I went up the hill to Don Maximo’s house, a dirt floor shack with cardboard walls and a corrugated tin roof, held down with rocks. I’d write a letter on a notebook, and he’d sound it out. We eventually started doing two letters, one consonant and one vowel, like “Da, De, Di, Do, Du…” We’d do that with every consonant, every day.
After a while, I mixed it up. I wrote the letters, “Ga To.” He slowly sounded them out. Then his voice caught and his eyes lit up. He looked at me and said in natural Spanish, “Gato.” Cat in Spanish.
I knew at that moment I wanted to be around that – whatever that is because it’s intensely meaningful when you think that maybe you just taught somebody how to fish. By time I left Mexico, he was reading Dr. Seuss level books in Spanish.
What Don Maximo never realized is that he taught me more Spanish than I taught him to read. But if you could have been there and seen the thankfulness in his eyes, if you could have felt how hard it was for me to leave him in that wheelchair and go down that hill for the last time and say goodbye, then you’d know, there is no job like teaching.
I went back to Iowa, knowing I was going to be a teacher at a certain high school, and that certain high school is West High. I’d had some great teachers at West High, and I wanted to be like them.
I can’t talk about teaching without talking about my teachers.
One of them was Jim Moore. He was my geometry teacher and cross country coach. The summer after my junior year, I trained too much. I ran too hard and I burned out – physically, mentally, emotionally. I went from one of the fastest runners to one of the slowest runners. The next year, I decided not to go out for the team.
Coach caught wind of that and called me into his office. He told me that I was a good runner, and he’d like to have me out on the team. He didn’t let me give up. That may not seem like much, but when you take running seriously, it’s a big thing.
It’s what he didn’t say that was almost as important as what he did say. He didn’t say, “Look, the facts are that you are not very good. We could get by without you.” That is not what he said. He went against the facts, and he believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I had to prove him right.
I went on to get a track scholarship, and that scholarship along with the help of my parents helped me get out of college without much debt. I was able to travel. My travels led to Mexico and Don Maximo, where I learned Spanish, and today, I’m a Spanish teacher.
It all goes back to one conversation that I’m sure Coach Moore doesn’t even know about, doesn’t even remember because it was no big deal to him, but it was a life-changer for me. I want to be around that buzz. I want to have those kinds of conversations with kids.
I also can’t talk about teaching without talking about my students. Like I tell them, “Without you guys, this room is empty.”
But there are still kids slipping through the cracks. I saw kids who didn’t feel treasured at school. They were like my dad – the smartest person I know who barely finished high school. My dad was the last to arrive at school and the first to leave. School was a waste of his time.
By the time he was 15, he had built a car out of Chevy, Ford and Dodge parts. It had a log for a seat, a glass Clorox jug for a gas tank with a garden hose for a fuel line and a pair of vice grips for a steering wheel. But that thing ran.
He didn’t hurry home to read comic books. He read calculus books. I ask and I want to get an answer for this some day – how is school not for a kid like that? That bothers me.
My job is to look for people like my dad, and sometimes I find them.
One Coach Moore moment in my teaching career happened with a kid I didn’t even have in class or in sports. His name was C.J. He was in a credit recovery program where he could show up whenever and take all his required classes at his own pace. School was not his favorite place.
The day before he showed up in my classroom, I had rapped at a Martin Luther King Jr. pep assembly, “We all of one color and that color is green, and West is a mother if you know what I mean.”
That kid that was pretty cool so he came by because he wanted to be a rapper some day.
He came to my classroom as the bell was about to ring. My students were filing in, and I was anxious to get started on time. C.J. handed me a piece of paper with words written on both sides and said, “Can you check this out?”
I skimmed it, trying to give him a respectful amount of time. I looked up and said, “This is good stuff.” He snapped that paper out of my hands and started rapping right there in front of me. The whole class just got really quiet and watched this scene.
I sat back in my chair, gave up the idea of starting on time and realized I’m in the presence of an artist. This kid can write.
I told him to come back and show me some more. He came back every day. He’d bring his laptop, which he used like a music making machine, and he’d infuse something like jazz into rap. He showed me how he created his own beats and shared his notebook full of raps and poems.
He graduated, and he is still chasing his dream. He performs in clubs, where he does his raps. To be a part of process where you see somebody shine – that hasn’t – is an amazing thing.
The fact that I can have those sort of Don Maximo moments where I see somebody learn something for the first time or have those conversations like Coach Moore had with me that shaped my life or help kids like C.J. shine, there is no job like teaching.
Todd Siefker teaches at West High School and coaches cross country, basketball and tennis. He has lived and worked on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico and taught in Mexico. He has a wife, three kids and two dogs. He blogs at TheTeacherCommunity.wordpress.com.
Hear the stories of Siouxland immigrants from around the world, listen to live music and get a taste of authentic East African cuisine at 7 p.m. Friday, November 18 at the Sioux City Art Center. The theme is "Stories without Borders." This special evening of entertainment is only $10 at the door.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.