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"Wild Kingdom" (Excerpt)

Wild Kingdom was the first greeting I had on my first day of school at Victor Valley High School in 1989. I asked another teacher where room 141 was and he simply responded with the question, “ You mean, Wild Kingdom?” It should have been a sign to me that my teaching career would be anything but ordinary. I went up to the upper campus and into the classroom. I was completely amazed at what I saw. There were kids from every facet of life there, mostly the hard side. A lot of them came from Adelanto, a nearby town known for a rough character itself. In my classroom sat gang members, kids with suicide problems, little girls who were, I am sure, selling themselves on the streets. I remember many of those kids by name, because they left such an impression on me. I know a couple of them ended up in prison. I know several of the gang members are dead from drug deals gone bad. One such boy was killed execution style in the first couple of months I had him in class.

The last thing on their minds was learning. Ben used to sit in class and draw pictures of himself and his “equipment” in his book (how big it was). That is where these kids’ minds were. They sagged their shorts and wore Oakland A’s and Raiders shirts. These were the “gang” clothes of the day. And me? I was the brand new teacher. I didn’t even have my teaching credential yet but was actually fulfilling my credential on an emergency basis and taking classes at night. I will never forget what was taught to me in some of those night classes. One of the lessons was to give the kids a thousand yard stare until November. This meant that I wasn’t supposed to smile… at all. So, I walked in with these kids and knew exactly what I had to do. They were going to get the thousand-yard stare until November. What I didn’t realize was that these kids would give it right back. They gave me the thousand-yard stare and after just a couple of days, I was pretty sure they’d be able to give it right back until November too.

So, that was my first two weeks of school. I sat in class and tried to force them to respect me; tried to force them to sit there quietly; and we stared at each other. I actually stood for an hour at a time next to a table staring at them. They stared right back, stared at each other, and I realized then that something had to change. Either they were going to change, or I was going to change, but this job was not going to work the way it was going.

As I was getting ready to head back into the classroom one day, I figured out that my students were not going to change unless they had a reason to change. Most of them, as I said, were hard. They came from broken homes, were living in broken down shacks in Adelanto, and sometimes they even lived in abandoned houses. I guess I concluded that I might be able to give them a reason to change. Nothing else seemed to be working, and the class wasn’t learning anything except that if they were quiet, they had a free period of staring. This is when I began to discover what I would call the Cal Method of teaching.

The Cal Method basically stresses the academics, but not first. I didn’t patronize them with formulas and memorization and boredom. I figured that if I could make it fun, dynamic and interesting, half my battle was won. My first half of that battle was to get the kids to come to school and to come to my class. Once I had them in class and not on the streets, then maybe I could make a difference in their day. So this method of teaching began by constantly seeking out positive affirmations or positive attributes with every single student every single day. I would greet them eye-to-eye at the door to let them know that I saw them and I wanted them to see me. I wanted them to know that together, we could make it through this thing, first of all called life, then called school, and then called math. So, the Cal Method began.