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The Gift of a Good Start

19 February 2023:

While I commissioned into the USAF in June of 2013, I did not enter active duty until the end of March in 2014. For my career-field, I had to wait nine months to start class and while I waited, I was not getting paid. To sustain myself, I worked a series of jobs. I was a sales associate and shoe specialist at Charlotte Russe clothing store, sales associate and dressing room lead at Under Armor and a substitute teacher in both the Vacaville and Vallejo School districts-- all within the communities that I grew up in. Working as a sales associate receiving a part-time salary after earning a bachelor's degree was extremely humbling and I did experience some shame when I would occasionally run into former classmates from High School who would ask me, "didn't you go to college?" Or look at me in what I thought were judgement eyes but may have been my own insecurity. Sometimes I felt the need to explain my situation but then I realized I don't need to explain anything to anyone. A job does not define me and there is nothing shameful in what I am doing. Despite my initial embarrassment, I made good friends at the clothing stores, some of whom I stay connected with to this day.

My last two months before I left for the USAF I worked full time as a substitute teacher. I traveled to classrooms across both districts and subbed for kids in elementary, middle, and high schools in special ed, math, English, PE. etc. Elementary school was the easiest as the children were SO well behaved and still respected authority. College prep classes (like trigonometry) were a close second as those kids were serious about their education, were pretty independent and followed direction well. The absolute worst were a Middle School and High School both in the Vallejo School district. The group of 7th graders I subbed for, for PE had been without a teacher for months and were out of control. The freshmen High school class I believe was a product of the environment that surrounded them and enjoyed taking advantage of the opportunity to be without their primary teacher for the day. During one class with the freshmen one kid ran out the classroom to join a fight and when I scolded him for doing that he said, "I'm sorry Ms. Hood but that was my boy, I had to help ‘em!" I caught another kid smoking in class (this was before vapes), another had their phone out and was having a full on verbal conversation and overall the group was extremely disruptive. About halfway through the class the fire alarm was pulled and as I got up and grabbed the clip board so we can partake in the fire drill one student asked me, "where are you going?" I said to them, "we need to exit the class, it’s a fire drill." The student replied to me nonchalantly, "There's no drill. People just pull it." And sure enough she was right. A random student pulling the fire alarm sporadically throughout the day was a daily occurrence.

By the end of the day I went to the administration to ask what the policy was on cell phones in the class. At the high school I graduated from (Vanden, which was in the Travis School district), use of cell phones during the school day was banned. Teachers would take students’ cell phones and hold them until the end of the day if they were ever within sight of class. Before I started holding kids accountable, I wanted to know what the policy was. One of the administrators told me, "well...when it comes to using the cell phones, what you really need to look out for is if they're charging them in the wall outlets. When they are charging them that’s energy and we have to pay for that. Charging phones is NOT allowed." I left that conversation so confused. The administrator was more concerned about the money it could cost to charge a phone than the quality of education the children were able to receive by reducing distractions increasing their ability to be present in the classroom. The next day I saw students cutting class. At my High School alma mater, the campus monitors would ensure they returned to class, these ones would look the other way. Some campus monitors would even carry on a conversation with the students having full knowledge that they were skipping class! I was in disbelief and quickly realized I was in a totally different environment than what I was used to.

What I couldn't understand was how there was such a drastic shift in the demographic and experience between my former High School Vanden, and Vallejo High School, which is where I spent time working as a sub. The schools were less than 30 minutes away from each other and even shared the same "707" area code. My dad who worked at one of the neighboring high school's in Vallejo explained to me how Vallejo use to be a different kind of city. The Mare Island naval base had a significantly positive impact on the economy in Vallejo and when that closed down in 1996, that adversely impacted the economy and other elements of the city. Demographically, many occupants of Vallejo were predominantly working-class people and the parent involvement in the children’s lives, varied on the parents’ own presence and availability. Vanden was a majority white (at the time I attended but has become more multi-cultural) with a presence of people of color, while the majority of public schools in Vallejo were minorities. Vallejo High School in particular was over "96% minority enrollment" with "77% majority of students coming from economically disadvantaged households," according to a source. I remember during my time at Vanden, some black student's parents relocated from Vallejo and changed their address in order have their children get an education at Vanden. At that time I had no idea why. Now I do.

By the end of January I was offered a long-term substitute teacher assignment at the Vallejo Charter School for 7th grade English and Social Studies. The good thing was that I would get to remain with the same class for the remainder of my substitute teaching career before I left for the USAF. The con was it was with the rowdy 7th grade students who had been without a teacher for the majority of the year. They were out of control and somehow, I was going to have to figure out how to create a stable classroom for them where some learning could occur.

My first week in the class was what I expected. Madness. I had reconnected with my former tennis coaches (who were also AP Government and the other a math teacher) and a former fellow tennis teammate who was in her first couple years of teaching at Vanden. They gave me a template for a syllabus, advice, and community in knowing I was not alone in dealing with the foolishness of students. One teacher said to me, "I thumped a kid the other day for saying the F-word in class. I told him not to say it and he did. I thumped him right in the forehead." We all laughed. I didn't take the getting physical with kids approach, but I definitely took the syllabus and other advice.

I was very open with the students about who I was, set some ground rules and expectations that were outlined in the syllabus, and was committed to completing the common core learning objectives that were outlined in my daily lesson plans. Right off the bat I was met with problems. One of the parents refused to sign my syllabus and asked to meet with me as she had problems with my standard that if a homework assignment was not turned in by 9 am the morning of the due date, the student would receive a zero for that assignment. I met with the mother. Her case was, what if the parent makes the child late and they arrive at school after 0900? I explained to her that I will look at the situation case by case and not hold it against the child if the parent makes them late to class. I emphasized the importance of timeliness and how in life being on time and meeting deadlines or communicating the need for adjustments is a critical skill. That was what I was attempting to teach with this standard. She immediately got on board and became supportive of what I was attempting to do with the class and was happy her son would finally have some stability with a teacher.

Every hour with the students was hard. I want to emphasize that, not just every day, EVERY HOUR. The children had been without a teacher for so long that so many of them refused to pay attention to any type of lesson I had to give. Some would steal things from each other, bully one another, be disruptive, all kinds of things. I was sending kids out of the class for a time out in other classrooms almost daily. I was having individual counseling sessions with my students during some of my breaks. Once I realized that it was hopeless attempting to teach the lesson plan traditionally, I decided to change it up. I asked the class to tell me how they felt about losing their former teacher, Ms. Dag Dag, earlier in the year and having subs ever since. The students had a lot of feelings about it and fully participated in the discussion. There was genuine hurt and abandonment there. The overall feedback I received from the students was that our discussion made them feel heard and cared for. The next thing I did was have the students write daily journals about different subjects and afterwards, we would talk about the journal topic as a class. I would read what they wrote in their journals privately and write them messages back after logging it for a grade. This is where I gained an entirely different perspective of the students in the class.

One student shared how his father was physically abusive to his mom and how he was deported back to Mexico. He described how he was beginning to be pressured to participate in criminal activities by other kids. Another girl talked about being abused by a family member and also being robbed. Another little boy who was consistently picked on for his freckles and red hair (one of the few white students in the class) shared how he was playing with his little brother and next thing he knew he died. He described what that experience was like for him and shared openly with the entire class. The journals and conversations helped the children express themselves and feel heard and in turn build trust. Our classroom lightweight became a therapy session.

Mr. Glenn Lustig, one of the senior staff members built and would provide me with the daily lesson plans. I would teach from the lesson plan while incorporating some of my AF team building activities into the lesson to help the students stay engaged. I also instituted an award system that incentivized good behavior and encouraged the students to work as a team to achieve it. This helped us progress in creating a more stable learning environment, but every day was still hard. So much so that one day I went to a dentist appointment after work and the hygienist had me lie down and relax for 20 minutes before they began their work as they needed my blood pressure to go down. That was the first time in my life I had a documented case of high blood pressure. I was 23 years old.

In my final week, Mr. Lustig asked me if I could do a presentation about my life to the students. He said to me, "You are really inspiring and it would do a lot for them to learn how you got to where you are today." My last day, I came to work in my 2d Lt USAF uniform and gave a presentation about my life. The students that caused me so much stress were fully engaged. I saw the inspiration flow into some of their eyes. A glow into their faces. I knew that look because I remember distinctly the instances it happened to me. The little boy who was being pressured into criminal activity asked me what some of the criteria was to do a job in the Air Force. Another little girl wanted to know what it was like going to England. I told them everything I knew. Never in my time with them had they all given me their undivided attention. I tried to reassure them that if they believed it, they could put themselves on a path and do the work to achieve it.

As I left, the students and teaching staff gave me some of the most thoughtful gifts and heartfelt messages and letters to remind me of my time with them. One of the letters said this:

"You've inspired me to be better. The things you shared with us made my day because I can connect with you in a way.... I will succeed if not for myself for the fact that I am capable."

It was REALLY hard to leave. But I was also excited for the opportunity I was about to have in leading Airmen in the USAF. Something I intentionally worked on since I was 16 years old but when it came to developing the ability to care and positively impact the lives of others, possess character, leadership and integrity—I had been working on this my entire life.

This experience with the students and my own life reminded me of just how powerful and influential authority figures are—parents are number one, but also teachers. I am where I am today because of the teachers and coaches who took the time to mentor me and expose me to people and opportunities that would inspire me; develop me. The earlier the child experiences this and the healthier the environment is for them to be fully present in order to learn, the better chance they have. While I was in still in ROTC in college (prior to my time working as a substitute teacher) I was very passionate about reaching back to the high-school's and talking to kids about the opportunities in the Air Force and specifically about ROTC because I knew what just sharing the opportunity with them could do for them. What seeing us, the ROTC cadets who are not that many years in age apart from them, would do for them. ESPECIALLY kids in rougher, more ethnically diverse neighborhoods like Vallejo. I tried to explain the importance of this to one of my instructors at the time but was unable to get my point across. He explained to me that the most successful areas for recruitment into ROTC was through the junior colleges, so if we were going to expend recruiting resources, data wise, that was the area to target to achieve a desirable outcome. He wasn't necessarily turning me down, but requiring me to strengthen my case for recruiting to these areas when the data did not support a fruitful outcome to meet recruiting objectives. I didn't know how to get my point across and cried in the middle of our conversation (it was really embarrassing). All I could see were little black and brown kids who never knew opportunities like this existed and would continue to fall into the same traps and limited lifestyles that were created for us. I didn't know how to communicate with words the worthiness of this cause; how these children deserved to be made aware of the opportunities in the Air Force and AFROTC too, even if the data didn't currently show success there. It hurt me that my instructor didn't automatically see this; nor I the ability to successfully communicate it.

The longer I was in the Air Force, I came across discussions by fellow officers who will complain regarding making difficult decisions about certain assignments because of the poor quality of schools in the area. One of those being Maxwell AFB in Montgomery Alabama. This is where the Air Force conducts several trainings for its officer corps to include commissioning sources such as Field Training for ROTC and Officer Training School (OTS); Squadron Officer School (SOS) for Captains; hosts its Air University which is a required course for Majors and finally, Air War College which it is required for senior Lieutenant Colonels. Many officers (and it may be a complaint of Enlisted Airmen who get tagged for an assignment there) would complain that they had to make the difficult choice to be separated from their kids for two years in order to keep them in a better school district or find a way to enroll them in private school because the school systems were so bad. These conversations always bothered me because I found them to REAK of privilege. Yes, the public schools in Montgomery are bad. PERIOD. At the same time, there is a reason they are bad and the families of those who are complaining are not the only ones impacted. Montgomery is the birthplace of the civil rights movement in America and to this day every time I go there and go out into the community that stench of racism and the impact it has had on the town and the people within the community is still very present. I imagine the people living there would like something better for themselves and their children as well. I'm not a parent so maybe I will one day have a different perspective. Maybe I just don’t get it. But after experiencing the wide difference in public school systems in CA and seeing the role socio-economic status and ultimately race had on the quality of education children received, complaints of living there for a two-year assignment bothered me when some people have been trapped in that system for generations. Instead of criticizing and finding a way out for you and YOUR kids, what are YOU doing to make the education system in the region better?

A few years ago, I reconnected with the student who wrote the letter that I cited above. She's in college now attending one of the Universities within my home state of CA. She did exactly what she said she was going to do in her letter. SHE did it and it is HER accomplishment. I was elated and so proud of her when she told me the news. I think of where all my students are today and wonder what impact, if any our time together had on their lives. I know they have forever changed me and I have the upmost respect and admiration for teachers. They are truly the most powerful and influential people in the world in my opinion and deserve more than so many are given.

The late Gen (ret) Colin Powel once said in his book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, "You can leave behind a good reputation. But the only thing of momentous value that we leave behind is the next generation, our kids-- all of our kids. We need to work together to give them the gift of a good start in life."

*Link to the article I cited above about Vallejo High School demographics:

Photo: This student (above on the left) is currently attending a University in California

Photo: A quote from Gen (ret) Colin Powell's book, "It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership. Definitely one of my favorite books.


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