Power Up

 Most of the time, I’m dragging as a teacher.  I have so much to do.  At times, I wonder that anything gets done.  And I’m not a lazy teacher, there’s just a lot going on.  I’m getting into the habit of finding specific times to power myself up.  I’m reminded of old video games I used to play, Mario Bros. really, where there would be a mushroom that would make you big or a bouncing star that would make you go faster.  I don’t see sliding mushrooms or bouncing stars around anywhere in my school to power me up, to give me that little something extra to, well, to make me feel better about teaching.  So I create them.  

She did not know I had this planned.  Two teachers helped me in that they gave up time in the theater for my class.  It was a journal entry.  A student wrote they had not been able to play the piano since coming to America.

“I love playing the piano,” she said.  “I wish others knew how good I am.”

I told everyone to sit down, an automatic audience in the theater.  I pushed the piano out and removed the black cover over it.  I set the bench for her.  And it was at about this point, that the look of “all of this is for me” flushed her face.

Yes.  Just for you.

We had fifteen minutes of class time left.  Usually I give my classes breaks but not today.  We were ending with one, waiting for the bell to ring and watching a girl play piano like two close friends who haven’t talked to each other in months.

Teaching, for the rest of the day, was a cinch.




Before everything started, we waited in the lobby of the BSU Student Union.  After about ten minutes, one of our students from last year, who is now a student at BSU, walked by on her way to class.  It was perfect, divine, better than any planning I could conjure.  We high-fived her as she went to class.  It was such a high note, we could have left right then and there.  But we didn’t.

We were all supposed to wear red so we could stand out among the other people at a job and career event at Boise State.  It kind of worked, not everyone wore something red.  From a teacher’s perspective, today was great.  Students participated in mock interviews and received positive feedback from employers, from people they never met.  That’s huge when you are an English Learner.  They walked around and talked to vendors, asking them questions about their organization and questions like, “What keys of employability or traits do you look for in an employee?”  I gave them an assignment, they had tasks, they hated me for it at first.

“Can’t we just do everything without writing anything down?” one kid asked.


“And we have to interview?”


“But I haven’t practiced.”

“You are today,” I said, giving not an inch.

And then later, I peeked into the mock interview room.  There they were, one from China, one from Libya, two from Congo, one from Iraq with a hijab – sitting up, leaning forward, making eye contact, shaking hands when finished.  And then, they were very eager to show someone, anyone, the positive interview feedback.

At the vendor tables, they talked a lot.  Not so much at first because this was a new experience but probably not their last job fair.  Free swag galore – pens, pencils, highlighters, sunglasses, candy, candy and candy.  Girls got their hair did at the beauty college vendor, boys shocked each other with electricity at the STEM table and everybody just had to have the cool, black sunglasses Wells Fargo was giving away.  

At 12:30 p.m., we were finished and the bus was not showing up for another hour and a half.  The last thing you want teenagers doing is just waiting around, mischief might ensue.  Fortunately, we were in a building with a bowling alley, pool tables and big screens showing a soccer game.  Kids bowled for the first time ever, others wore their sunglasses as they looked down a long cue stick, pulling it back and forth like a piston, measuring how to hit the cue ball just right to send a solid or striped into a side or corner pocket.

Kids being kids.  Kids who work hard, laughing and playing, no stress.  They interviewed, handled their business and then they played.  It was a good day.  


Tomorrow I will proctor a standardized test, probably not designed with English Learners in mind.  I will have to watch frustration flood their faces from the front of the room as English defeats them.  I cannot help them.  I cannot explain anything.  It is cruel.  All I have is the teacher’s fall back dictum of, “Try your best” or “Don’t worry, it doesn’t affect your grade.”  Who knows what I will say.  But hey, at least they have four hours to finish the test.

A Teaching Not In Vain

In professional wrestling, there’s something called “pop.”  When a wrestler’s signature music plays indicating they are about to make their appearance, the explosion of the crowd’s roar is called pop.  Pop measures excitement.  Pop measures how the crowd and what the crowd feels about that wrestler.  When great wrestlers have been injured or have taken a hiatus, their initial return back is welcomed usually with an arena-shattering pop.  Or in wrestling speak, pandemonium has ensued.

Oh that teachers would receive this kind of pop.  I sometimes imagine that would be the case at the end of a lesson or when I return from having a sub or when I’ve meticulously and patiently taken students through a novel.  Long sigh.  But no.

We don’t have elaborate names or wear flashy costumes.  At least most of us don’t.  We might not ever jump off the top rope, ever hail “From Parts Unknown” or know what it’s like to be the main event.  But as teachers, we take beatings.  Demands body slam us.  Paper work is a vise-like headlock.  The expectation that we can do it all is a cheap poke to the eyes, or worse, an explosive low blow that lingers and lingers.  Tired, stressed.  We are stretched.  The job is like an angry foe that’s got us in a camel clutch, pulling and pulling, asking if we’ve had enough.  But we are stubborn, we’d rather go to sleep than tap out.

Sometimes, I imagine myself a barker, standing outside my classroom door with my classroom voice exhorting everyone who passes by to “step right up and step right in” to my fascinating classroom world.  But nobody dares explore The New World inside except for those who see it as a refuge, which is a privilege in itself.  But too many times I feel like, what? a shoe shine guy the modern world passes by, a payphone in a world of cells.  Nobody gets excited over those things.  There’s no pop there.

In the same way that I have seemed to lose my ability to age younger people because I’m getting old, I sometimes cannot see how my teaching is making a difference or has.  Which I know isn’t true.  But, if I had a hose of water and was spraying it into the ocean, I couldn’t tell if the ocean was getting any bigger.  That’s the feeling.  Then again, maybe what I am looking for will never be found where I am looking.  I am looking for shoots in a hundred-acre field where I have planted a million seeds; hoping my voice has haunted someone enough to take the road less traveled.  To live and teach without knowing is fearful.  To know that you have, is grace.


Facebook message conversation between me and a former student from my first year teaching in Stockton, California. 

3/13 9:56 p.m.

Mr. Soza, how have you been?  I hope you remember your number 1 student (student name).  Lol.  It’s good to see you Mr. Soza.

3/13 9:57 p.m.

Of course I remember you. Why the heck do you think I friended you like years ago. I hope you’ve been good.

3/13 10:02 p.m.

Sorry Mr Soza. I’ve been off Facebook for personal reasons.  I’ve been great.  I have a bachelors in business marketing.  You did always tell me I was smart.  I just was on the wrong path and now I’m living the good life.  No more street (expletive) or nothing.  Mr. Soza, thank you man for believing in me when you seen something I couldn’t see in myself.

3/13 10:03 p.m.

You got my eyes wet over here loco.

3/13 10:07 p.m.

Hope their tears of joy.  Lol.  All I can say is I made it Mr. Soza.  A lot of guys that were in our class are dead or in jail.  It hurts but they couldn’t see the bigger picture besides the street life.  I had to change for me and my family.  I pushed my self harder until I opened my eyes.  

3:13 10:08 p.m.

That’s awesome (student name). I’m glad you made the necessary changes in your life to be successful. When is your graduation?  You’re so right. My last year at Jane Frederick I lost two students to the streets and one got sent to county for a few years.

3:13 10:10 p.m.

I graduated in June.  I went to Washington State in Seattle.  I just moved back to Stockton.  I just had a new born 3 weeks ago. I’m a changed man now.

3/13 10:13 p.m.

Come on now!  This story keeps getting better and better.  I would love to hear your whole story one day when your down, leaving Stockton and getting things right. Must have been a very interesting process, lots of stories to tell I bet.

3/13 10:16 p.m.

One day I would love to tell you about my story and I would like to have young people hear it because if I made it out of Stockton and got my life straight anyone can accomplish their dreams.  Are you still in teaching in California?

3/13 10:20 p.m.

So proud of you (student name)!  I had to get out of California.  I live in Idaho and work specifically with refugee students, students who have seen war in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, man from all over the world.  Many of them have severe trauma, some of them come to me with very little academic skills, it’s a different kind of population from Jane Frederick but similar in a way; Stockton is no walk in the park you know what I’m saying. It’s war there too, hard to live, dangerous, you know.

3/13 10:27 p.m.

Wow Mr Soza, you’re on another level with students.  It’s amazing.  I’m glad you can teach students who wanna be taught and not (expletive) kids who just go to school to be (expletive). 

3/13 10:34 p.m.

Nah that’s good man.  I would love to talk to you some more but I have to get to bed. I ran 10 miles today, am super tired and this time change has not helped.  Your story is definitely a good one because I’ll tell you what, my first year there as a rookie, many times I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing but I definitely know that God had me there for a purpose and for a specific time. I’m going to bed now (student name). Thanks for touching bases. Congrats again on your accomplishments. Oh and, you can call me Zeke! Mr. Soza is my father.

3/13 10:43 p.m.

It was good speaking to you again and I will write my story on a piece of paper for you.  God is good.  He puts our faith to the test.  I’m happy for you and I will keep in touch Mr. Zeke. Have a blessed night.


A blessed night, indeed. 





Okay, look.  About this kid Ahmed.  First of all, for the past three years I have worked with refugee students from all parts of the world and many of them have been Muslim.  Not only have they been some of the best students I have ever had but they have also been some of the best and respectful people I have ever met.  Hands down.  Case closed.  And that is to the credit of their parents.  

They have been teased for how they look and dress.  Two American boys did that in my presence.  Big mistake.  Think Mama-bear defending her cubs except I’m a former United States Marine.  I have known of one incident where a girl could not take the bullying anymore and stood up for herself physically.  What are you gonna do?

Now, at the same time, my Muslim students are teenagers.  Like all teenagers, irregardless of race, they joke around, goof around, test boundaries, experiment, etc.  Teenagers.  There’s just something inherently universal in being a teenager.

Now, with all that said.

I’m glad this kid is a genius with all the know-how he has with making clocks, fixing things, tinkering around.  I think his father said somewhere that Ahmed can fix his phone if it breaks.  Great.  Wonderful.  I’m glad this kid has a talent and I certainly hope he continues to improve on his skills.

But, when a teacher tells you to put something away, put it away.  Right now, the whole nation is armchair quarterbacking what they would have done and how they would’ve handled things.

But when you’re a teacher, one of your most important jobs is classroom management.  Students have no options when it comes to this.  When my students come to class, their cell phones go in a blue bucket and for ninety minutes they endure separation anxiety from their devices.  And guess what?  I. Don’t.  Care.  Too bad, so sad.  As a teacher, I need them focused on me and what I’m trying to teach them.  I’m jealous for their attention.  I will not compete with their phones for their attention.  If I want to change my seating chart daily, oh well.  If I notice they’re abusing other privileges, I will remove them.  In short, I craft the conditions necessary for optimum academic learning time, and safety.

According to this BBC article, “Ahmed said that he had made a clock at home and brought it to school to show his engineering teacher.  He said his engineering teacher congratulated him but advised him ‘not to show any other teachers.'”

I can understand him wanting to show his engineering teacher something that he was very proud about.  Teenagers want affirmation.  They want to know and want others to know that there is something special and unique about them.  It helps them feel good about who they are and I get that.  From my perspective, I don’t think Ahmed brought it to school to cause alarm but to feel validated for his talents.

But, if his engineering teacher told him to put it away, he should’ve obeyed and turned it off or something in order for it not to be a distraction.  But that’s not what happened.  Later, in another class, “another teacher became aware of it when the device beeped during the lesson.”  Nothing beeps in my class because I make my students turn in their phones and turn them off.  And if something did beep in my class while I’m giving instruction, you better believe I’m stopping instruction and dealing with the individual who has selfishly interrupted the learning of others.  

I applaud this teacher for taking action in spite of the critical voices out there who have never had the responsibility of ensuring the safety of other people’s children.  Are we seriously forgetting the times that we live in?  Personally, I’ve been burned by students who I thought were above that.  Naive me.  I had a student in Stockton run out of my classroom, jump a fence only to have a sawed-off shotgun fall out of his shirt.  Teens these days are different.  Not all of them, of course.  School shootings.  The knock out game.  What about this girl, convincing her friend to commit suicide.  I don’t mean to stereotype or generalize, I’m just saying, It’s pretty hard to know who you can trust these days.  And, of course, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of radical Muslim extremists like Muhammad Youssuf Abdulazeez who killed 4 Marines in Tennessee in July of this year.  All of these unfortunate events have helped create a most unfortunate context; a context that Ahmed Mohamed has not personally contributed to, a context that does him a great disservice and one in which we all find ourselves living in.    

We know what happened next.  He’s taken to the office, interviewed by police, and taken into custody.  Many are calling this unfortunate.  What is really unfortunate are the scores of people second guessing the paramount responsibility the school and the police have in ensuring the safety of all.  In short, the school and police lose either way.  If they handle the situation by erring on the side of caution and being vigilant like they did in this situation, they are obviously racist.  Had his clock been a real threat and had they done nothing at all, the school and police would’ve been labeled woefully incompetent and unequivocally negligent.  The only situation in which the school and the police win is one where a real threat is thwarted.  And nobody wants that.

So where do I stand?  As a teacher, I stand with Ahmed.  I would tell him what I would tell any of my students now who have obvious talents.  I would tell him, “Keep making clocks.  Keep developing your talents and be the best you can be.  Let the haters hate.  But the next time a teacher tells you to do something, do like the t-shirt says: Obey.”  But I also stand with the school, the teachers, and the police who have the great responsibility of ensuring the safety of all.  For those that want to cherry pick and armchair quarterback this situation, rather than interjecting racism like a broken record, how about reasoning through and appreciating the great responsibility school administrators and local law enforcement carry.  Empathy goes a long way and for those that don’t know, it actually is a two-way street.