Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas, Mr. Leiken

The last week before Christmas vacation is a strange time at a public high school. In the LA school system, we get a three week break before heading back for the long three month slog towards Easter. With nearly everyone looking forward to the holidays, the school takes on a festive atmosphere, akin to the last week of school without the disruption - the kids know they have to come back.

During the final week before the break, the worst students disappear, the school puts up its decorations, and everyone: teachers, administrators, and students are more relaxed. By unwritten agreement a truce is declared; chill man, it's Christmas - relax.

I'm just miffed I can't find my funky Dr. Suess Santa hat, the only hat I've ever owned that glorifies the spirit of Christmas while simultaneously promoting the fashion of the ghetto.

Bah, Humbug!

One of the best teachers at the school gives me a gift card to Starbucks. I'm so surprised I'm at a loss of words. She's had a rough year, but that hasn't stopped her from being a great teacher. This year she is particularly frustrated with her honors class of Seniors, "They think they know it all," she complains, "and when they don't do their work, I turn into a real bitch."

We're still talking about them when her seniors file into the room; it's Friday, the last class of the day and everyone just wants to go home and leave. One of the students has a guitar, but when I ask him to play something he freezes up, embarrassed.

The teacher calls him out on it. "Why won't you play for Mr. Leiken? You had no problem playing for me yesterday."

The students eyes go wide, "Because that's Mr. Leiken."

I don't remember him. "I had you for another class?"

"U.S. History with Mr. Duran; don't you remember?"

Concentrating, I vaguely remember him. "Well, I hope you learned something."

The bell rings as the students take their seats. "Hell yeah!" he replies, putting the guitar away. Suddenly the seniors rise out of their seats and walk out of the room.

The teacher is stunned. "What is going on!" she calls out. "Where are you going?"

"Sorry Miss," one of the seniors answers, standing guard in the doorway. "You can't come outside." He pauses for a second, "But you can come out, Mr. Leiken."

I walk outside to find the seniors in the hallway formed into a group for a photo. Two in front are holding a fruit basket while another holds flowers. "Okay, you can come out now Miss!" The students standing guard at the door allow her into the hallway, her class breaks into applause.

The teacher's eyes grow red. "They may not know it all," I whisper, "but they do know you are a great teacher."

As the day ends, I'm in my room, preparing to leave when two young men call out to me. "Mr. Leiken, we've been looking for you!" For a second, I don't recognize them, they look too old to be in high school when I realize they are too old to be in high school - they are seniors who graduated last year. Neither was in special ed, or on my case load. They were regular general ed kids who were in a history class with Ms. Martinez.

I had them for one semester for one class, and even then I was the secondary teacher, but they remember me. We shake hands, "We've been looking for you all day, Mr. Leiken. How have you been?"

I invite them into my room and we talk. One of them is attending Northridge College; the other plans to attend college in the spring but is busy making his own film. We talk about classes, work, life after high school, and of course girls. One of boys has a line he likes to use when he meets new girls.

"I ask them if their hair is real, or if it's a weave."

I raise an eyebrow. "Well that's either going to flatter them or leave them really offended."

"It's the only way, Mr. Leiken. You can't let girls get too full of themselves."

"I never did hear back from your cousin," the other breaks in. "The one who works in casting."

"I forwarded your profile, but you have to remember she sees hundreds and hundreds of actor photos. I'm sorry she didn't get back to you."

"That's okay, Mister. You told me never to give up, so I'm not."

We talk for over an hour. I ask them who else they wanted to see. "Mr. Adams, because he encouraged us to get into college, and of course you Mr. Leiken."

This surprises me. I never tutored them, I never helped them with college applications, never met their parents - from my point of view they were just two more faces in the crowd.

Yet here they are, wanting to tell me how much I helped them.

I look at the clock. It's time to go home. I shake their hands and bid them goodbye, chuckling to myself as I head towards my car.

Thanks for the gift, kids. Thank you.

Merry Christmas.

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