By Joshua Pechthalt, CFT President

Helping young people mature into adults is one of the rewards of being an educator. Unfortunately, the political tug-of-war enveloping public education can distract us from the special relationships that happen in the classroom. I have been reminded recently why I chose to become a teacher in the first place.

Several weeks ago, I was invited to the 40th birthday party of Norma, a former student of mine at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles. She was elected student body president because she was smart, confident, and popular. She also took a stand for public education and ultimately for me. 

In 1992, shortly after the Rodney King verdict ignited civil unrest, a group of teachers, parents, and Norma and I met to discuss how we could unite the community around the importance of education and show our opposition to cuts being proposed for our schools. Eventually, we organized a one-hour boycott of first period with dozens of teachers, parents, and 1,500 students walking picket lines around Manual to protest the cuts. 

The district tried to single me out for punishment. But with the help of Norma, our parent leader, and my union rep (a fellow named Antonio Villaraigosa), we won in arbitration. Norma stood up for her fellow students …and she stood up for me. 

Today, Norma is a successful professional with beautiful kids and a loving husband. At her party were other former Manual students who have remained friends. Among them was Salvador.

“At its core, education should be about helping young people grow into adults with rich and meaningful lives. Our job is to nourish that growth and build lasting relationships.”

Salvador was a tough kid and a member of one of LA’s street gangs. He sat in the back of my class, quietly taking in the things we discussed: Reconstruction, the Great Depression, the war in Vietnam, and the causes for economic inequality. He was a smart kid; he listened and absorbed.

Salvador did well in school and was accepted into Cal State. But the transition from living in the inner city to moving hundreds of miles away to attend college was too much and he didn’t go. Instead, Sal became an electrician. Today he works for a municipality in the LA area.

At the party we talked and talked. He keeps up with politics, is happily married, has kids and is involved in girls’ softball. I am intensely proud of the transition Salvador made and the small role I could play.

Another student approached me on February 26 as I left the stage after speaking to the thousands of LA teachers fighting for a fair contract. “Mr. Pechthalt,” he said, “my name is Robert and you were my tennis coach at Manual.” I recognized him immediately.

When I coached tennis in the mid-1980s, few of the boys and girls knew how to play. But they were enthusiastic, practiced every day and on weekends, and by the end of the season we were a competitive team. Our kids played with aggressive determination and out-hustled teams with more skilled players. Robert and his teammates made the city playoffs three years in a row, something the tennis teams at Manual had not done in years.

Today, Robert is an elementary school teacher and union activist in LA. He still plays tennis. I was a proud teacher and coach seeing Robert after so many years.

At its core, education should be about helping young people grow into adults with rich and meaningful lives. Our job is to nourish that growth and build lasting relationships. When education is focused on getting kids to sit in their seats for hours while we proctor exams that determine their fate, we destroy what makes being an educator so important.

When I see one of my former students like Norma, Salvador, or Robert, I am reminded how lucky I have been to be a teacher. And why we fight so hard to protect what makes education important.