When We See Ourselves in Our Students

September 8, 2015

Editor’s Note: Ray Salazar, NBCT,  teaches high school English in Chicago Public Schools and  is an award-winning blogger. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

I admit it: I have favorite students. While I look out for all my students and work to build strong professional relationships around writing with all of them, there are always students I look out for a little more.

It’s not usually the outspoken, charismatic, or high-achieving young people who become my favorites. Instead, I end up admiring the students who speak up only occasionally or rarely, who express their writing frustrations honestly, who show determination even though they struggle, who show glimpses of brilliance. I especially like those students who work and go to high school a little bit more, because I started working at Burger King when I was 15 years old.

During his junior year, Jorge Lopez was an AP English Language student who also worked after school. In my class, he spoke up occasionally but always showed he was listening, observing. While other students wrote in class, Jorge would call me over and ask me philosophical questions that pushed me many times to respond, “Uh. Wow. I don’t know, man. I need to think about that one.”

And he’d make me laugh with his commentaries on the world.

During his senior year, Jorge would come into my classroom after school to use a computer to finish up assignments or complete college applications. He told me he continued to work.

During the mayoral election season, Jorge gave me a “Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia” button. In addition to working, Jorge volunteered for Chuy’s campaign on the streets in the cold.

One afternoon, Jorge told me he quit his long-time job at a banquet hall because of some misunderstanding. “I got blamed by another employee for something I didn’t do.”

I told him he couldn’t quit.  He needed to go back and clarify this situation with his boss. If his boss didn’t accept his legitimate explanation, then he could quit. But he could not throw away a few years of hard work over something he did not do.

I saw him a few days later in the hallway and he thanked me for pushing him. He worked out the situation and kept his job. I told him I was proud he advocated for himself.

A couple of weeks later after school, I asked Jorge what he wanted to do in life. I gave him the speech about following our passions and securing a good income because of our working-class backgrounds. I knew he had even bigger ideas. “Look, man,” I said, “we can have big dreams, but we ain’t gonna change the world.”

He looked at me and confidently said, “I still believe we can, Salazar.” And, standing corrected, I agreed.

This is why I see a little bit of myself in Jorge. I was never an athlete. I was never as smart or as philosophical. I was never as funny. I wasn’t a leader. I was never as cool.

But when I was 17, I balanced work and school. And I had this dream: I was going to get a college degree no matter what. Many factors probably would have indicated I should not have gone to a small private college on Chicago’s North side. My family was broke. It was a long commute from my fast-food job. I was the only one from my high school going there. I would be one of very few Latinos on campus.

But I went. Even though I struggled to pay my tuition, I thrived academically. Choosing that unexpected path changed my world.

So I encouraged Jorge to also take the unexpected path and apply to Albion College in Michigan, about 200 miles away from Chicago’s Southwest side. It’s a small college and an entirely different world.

He’ll be the first in his family to go to college and the only one from his graduating class to go to Albion. Even after financial aid, even after his parents’ modest contribution, even after working full-time and overtime this summer, he still needs to come up with $6,000.

Many will say that Jorge made the wrong decision, that he should go to a community college, that he won’t make it. However, studies show that “Chicago Public Schools graduates who had the academic background to attend a selective four-year college but instead enrolled in a City College were 31 to 41 percentage points less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years than similar students who opted to attend a four-year school instead.”

Jorge wants to use his intellect to change the world with a career in public policy, engineering, or maybe even politics. He’s got big dreams. And I believe they’ll come true.

So I helped Jorge set up a GoFundMe account to help him on his path to change his world and ours. I made the first donation. I hope you can add a few bucks, too, to support a young man working hard to turn his dreams into reality.

Ray Salazar, NBCT

Ray Salazar has been an English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools since 1995. He is a National Board Certified Teacher. His blog, The White Rhino, tied for second place in EWA's Community Members Best  Blog category in 2012. National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio aired his essays and the Chicago Tribune and CNN's Schools of Thought Blog published his editorials. Salazar earned a bachelor's degree in English/Secondary Education and master's degree in writing, with distinction, from DePaul University.  Visit his blog The White Rhino at Follow him on Twitter @WhiteRhinoRay Contact: