The Prom Predicament

As the school year ends, seniors reminisce about their long, hard journey of life and how much the world has changed since 2013 when “all the kids were twerkin’ and Harlem shakin’, ” my graduating student recalled nostalgically.  He was working on an English essay, but most of his time was spent denouncing the rising cost of gas and prom tickets.

“Hey Mister…can you believe prom tickets are $60 each!  That’s a $120 event!!” He waved his hands in the air, frustrated at this grave injustice.

I looked up from my papers sympathetically, resting my head in my interwoven fingers as I leaned back in my chair.  It creaked the sound of teacher wisdom.  “Have you ever heard of the term ‘First World Problems’?”

“Yes, yes…” he acknowledged the pettiness of his problem, but this awareness was short-lived.

“And the food, mister!! That’s like another $80!! You gotta be rich to go to prom.”

I rubbed my chin as I contemplated how to bring some real-world enlightenment to this young chap.  I was about to wax eloquent about the unbalanced distribution of wealth and the still-evident consequences of colonialism throughout the world, but I was interrupted.

“I’ve got it!” His index finger shot up, pointing at an imaginary light bulb glowing over his head.

“Burger King!”  He paused and processed his revelation.  “It’s close to the prom venue…and it was recently renovated.  Genius!!”

“I don’t know if Burger King reflects the usual prom motif,” I replied, conceding to his more narrow look on life.  “If you’re going to spend that much money on tickets, you may want to bump up your dinner option a level or two.”

He paused and ran his hand through his shaggy black hair.  I could see the wheels turning and a brilliant idea was percolating in his brain.

“Good point.  How about…” wait for it…”Denny’s!!”


“Yeah…that’s up several notches!”  A look of pride beamed from his face.

“You know what?” I replied,  “you’re right!  When I think ‘chic’, I think Denny’s. ”

“I know, right?!”

I could imagine his entourage walking into Denny’s with their bright blue and orange tuxedos, top hats, matching canes and monocles.  As he passes the hostess, he stuffs a dollar bill into her hand and whispers, “Get us the party booth and there’s another one of these in it for you.”

Not wanting him to go into Denny’s without making the night fully memorable, I offered a – ‘grand-slam’ – of wisdom.

“If you want to boost the swank factor, make sure you order the Moons Over My Hammy special,”  I suggested.

“The what? Is that going to get me in trouble?”

“Trouble…no?  Tweetable?  Yes. Trust me…and stay classy, class of 2017.”



Kodak Black

The 5th-period lunch bell rang and the usual parade of hard working, yet sociable, students filed into my rooom.  Short and spunky Chanchita led the charge, carrying a tray of tater tots, meatloaf and other strange sources of student nutrition.

“Hey Mister… can I borrow $1 for the vending machine?” she asked, looking suspiciously at her high tea on a tray.

An understandable request considering the day’s free range, non GMO food selection.

“Sorry… I only carry Benjamins… you know, hundred dollar bills.”

Unphased, she countered back.  “Oh…like Kodak?”

“The camera?”


“It’s a camera brand…back from the days when people printed pictures and put them in albums.”

“No, mister.  Kodak’s not a camera.  He’s a rapper.”

“Wait, wait…is he related to ‘The Weeknd‘?

“No, he’s another guy.”

“Do they ever rap battle… you know, The Camera vs. MC Saturdy/Sundy?” I asked while sharpening a pencil.

Chanchita rolled her eyes and smacked her gum. She pulled out her homework and placed it in front of her.

“You know, he was recently arrested. Had to cancel some upcoming concerts.” She informed me as she looked over her Chemistry notes.

“For what? Using Getty Image photos without permission?” I blew the excess shavings off the pencil and admired my work.

“No.” she ran her finger across the periodic table of elements.  “He violated house arrest.”

“Ahh… broke the ‘no selfie’ regulation,” I countered.

“Umm…no mister.”  She continued scanning Helium and Barium, so I decided to introduce her to Sarcasium.

“If his name were Polaroid, he could have claimed to be the original Instagram.” I placed another artistically sharpened pencil in the pencil cup.

She sighed at my overexposed sense of humor and made another attempt at bringing me into focus.

“Here mister.”  She showed me a picture on her phone.  “Here’s a picture of him.”

“What happened to his teeth?!” I gasped, unable to hide the reaction.

“Mister!” She shot back, offended at my irreverence.  “He’s one of the first rappers to have all his teeth covered in gold.  He’s got a lot of money.”

“Really?”  I paused as I looked at the picture then rubbed my mouth in pain.  “It looks like he got smacked in the mouth with a gold shovel.”

And that, class… would have been the element of surprise.

Pencil Drop

“Mr. Rivera, I still don’t get how to rationalize the radical out of the denominator of this fraction!”

Indistinct murmurings and pencil scratching.

“And this, my dear Hope for America’s Future, is how you rationalize the radical out of the denominator of a fraction.  BOOM!

“Umm..mister, what was that?”


“Why did you just climb the desk and slam your pencil down, then jump into an imaginary crowd?”

“Hello… didn’t you watch the Super Bowl Half Time show?”

“Yeah, but that’s different.”

“No.  I looked it up on wikipedia.  It’s a gesture used at the end of a performance or statement to indicate triumph.  As you can see, we clearly triumphed over this radical.”

“Mister… you have to be, like, famous to do that.  And you’re supposed to use a mic.”

“I’m famous in my own mind… and this pencil is my microphone to the masses of young minds that walk through that door every day.  So don’t you worry your pretty little ‘mic drop’ about that.”

“Umm..ok.  So anyway.  What if the denominator is an imaginary radical?”

More indistinct murmuring and squeaking sounds from a dry erase marker. 

“Imaginary radical… you’ve just been kicked into real life. BOOM!

“Mister?!  Mister, what are you DOING?!!”

“Shh… hand me the screwdriver.  And, you may want to move… this one deserves a white board drop.”



The Weeknd

There are three skills that will never be endorsed on my LinkedIn profile: nunchuck skills, street fighting skills, and Hip Hop/R&B skills. I was recently reminded of my lackluster R&B knowledge by a student who tried, with a restless heart, to explain to me one of today’s top artists in that genre.

My student Chanchita could best be described in three words: short, smart and sassy.  What she lacks in height she makes up for in attitude. I was helping her with some geometry homework and during one of her many “brain breaks”, she asked me what I was doing this weekend.

“Oh, you know… teacher stuff.  Erasing chalk boards, eating apples, finding practical uses for algebra,” I responded while drawing a one-handed, mad skills circle with my compass.

“Cool,” she nodded as she measured an acute angle.  “Since I got good grades this past quarter, my mom got me tickets to go see The Weeknd.”

My circle stopped mid spin with a screeching sound.

“The what?”

“The Weeknd, mister…he’s like an R&B singer.” She deftly spun the protractor around her index finger.

“And his name is – the Week End?”

“Mmhmm,” she continued her thoughtful geometric calculations.  I was confused.

“See this guy on my shirt?” She pointed to an odd looking fellow. “That’s him.”

“Why does he have 2 black cauliflowers coming out of his head?”

“MISTER!! That’s his hair! And he doesn’t wear it like that any more.” she answered indignantly, slamming her pencil down.

“Ok, ok, sorry. But why is he called ‘The Week End’?  Does he not like to work?”

Chanchita rolled her eyes with disgust.

“Of course he works.  It’s spelled WEEKND.”

“So – he doesn’t work and he needs a dictionary.” I penciled inside my well-constructed circle.  I could see Chanchita’s adolescent fuse sparking.  Excellent.

“Ugh,” she sighed with disappointment at my ignorance.

“Anyway,” she pressed on painfully, rolling her eyes.  “My seats are pretty far back.  To get up close to him is around $1000!!”

“$1000 to get up close to the Weeknd?! I’d rather just wait for Friday at 5pm!”

She ignored my comment, showing raw restraint.

“I’m going to get his new album before the concert.”

“Is it called Saturdy/Sundy?” I continued poking the embers of teenage angst.

“Argh!  Mister!” she growled at my irreverence through gritted teeth.

I leaned back coolly in my chair.  “It’s just not a cool artist name…The Weeknd.  Why’s he hating on the weekdays?” I paused, but no reply.   “You know what a cool band name is?”

“What, mister.”  She was in no mood for games.

“Def Leppard..that’s a cool band name.”

“Deaf Leopard?! Sorry, but that’s a dumb name. How could a deaf animal be a cool name for a band?  It can’t even hear music!” she threw her hands up in confused annoyance.

She has sound logic…although her spelling is flawed. 

“Look, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. You have fun this weekend with MC SaturdaySunday, and i’ll enjoy jamming out to deaf animals.”

With an exhausted look of frustration she sighed, “I don’t get you, Mr. Rivera.”

“Don’t worry… YOLO.”

I took this picture in to my local Great Clips as a template for my next cut. Turns out they’re not as “Great” as they claim.

Soft Hands

Some students really know how to affirm a teacher’s masculinity.

I was greeting one of my migrant students who works weekends and summers in the Florida heat picking fruits and vegetables ranging from tomatoes to watermelons.  These kids know what hard labor is like and they’ve got the work ethic to prove it.  I gave him a firm handshake and my best, sparkly teacher smile.

Immediately after the handshake he looked at my hand and admired, “Wow Mr. Rivera… you’ve got soft hands!”

I was taken aback at this revelation but masked my surprise with my still sparkling teacher smile.

Why you little…I can do 12 straight pull ups, 25 push ups and some intense pilates moves with these hands.  These vice grips dominate my neighborhood community gym!

But of course, as a teacher we are trained to put our internal dialogues through many filters before they reach the ears of our tender, impressionable students. After much thought, I flatly responded through a now fading sparkle:

“Thanks, Fernando. I used to be a hand model in L.A.”

“A what?”

“You know… home shopping club, fancy watch commercials, perfume ads.” I waited for this to register as I flashed my ten digits in front of his face as if they were celebrity jazz hands.

His face remained unimpressed.

“Oh…ok mister. I guess that didn’t work out for you.”

“Yeah, I guess not. Get to work.”


Se habla WTF

Overhead in an English Language Learning classroom:
A recently arrived Cuban student who speaks limited English asked a fellow student a very important question for today’s text savvy teen. 
(in a thick Cubanazo/Cuban accent)
“Oye chico… que significa WTF?” (hey, what’s WTF?) he asked, looking at his phone in confusion.  
Danyer (who i’ve secretly nicknamed “Danyer Mouse”) arrived from Cuba 3 months ago and has since jumped into the deep end of the English learning pool.
  This should get interesting…
A few snorts and chuckles rumbled through the room.
Reynaldo, his English learning wingman from Guatemala, has been here about a year and has el swagger to prove it.  I could see in his eyes that this question created two paths before Reynaldo:   1. Maintain the innocence of this English newbie  at the expense of future social humiliation  2. Thrust him into the harsh world of street English/text jargon.
Reynaldo paused and rubbed his chin in thought to indicate the seriousness of this question.  Danyer Mouse was treading water, waiting for his friend to throw him a line.  He leaned in.
“Mi querido Danyer,” (my dear Danyer) he began.  “Que buena pregunta” (what an excellent question). He purposely enunciated every word slowly to build up the suspense.
“WTF significa… wacala! ‘ta feo!” (WTF means, yuck! that’s gross!).   A few snorts resounded in the back of the class.
Danyer nodded slightly, perplexed look across his face,   probably because this  new revelation  did not match the context of the text he received.
“Wacala…’ta feo?”  He repeated slowly, trying to make the square peg fit into  a non existing hole.   “Tu ‘tas seguro , chico?”  (you sure, bro?)
“Claro… no te  llevaria por el mal camino hermano!”  (of course, I wouldn’t lead you astray bro!).
And so  Reynaldo chose the path of innocence for  Danyer, who was now armed with another slang phrase he could use in  a peer conversation, thus proving his  progression in the English language.
…until lunch time arrived and  it was Danyer’s  turn to receive a healthy portion of slippery Salisbury steak, soggy green beans and  mushed over tater tots from the cafeteria lady.
“Enjoy your lunch!” said the uncharacteristically cheery, hair netted matron.  She obviously brought her own lunch.
Danyer looked at his glistening meal and  had a  visceral reaction that transcended language, but  eventually registered with his most recently  acquired English phrase.
“WTF!”  He said to himself, only a bit too loudly.
The sweet Queen of Salisbury gasped, not expecting this mild mannered foreign student to have turned to the dark side so quickly.
“Young man!  That is not the type of language we use in my cafeteria!”  Her gloved   index finger wagging at a wide-eyed Danyer.
Shocked at her reaction to his honest assessment of the  substance on his plate,  he  decided honesty wasn’t always the best route in the English language.   Knowing the cafeteria staff cared about the students’ health, he adapted his new found phrase to  try and mend the situation. Wacala…’ta healthy,  he reasoned.  With a big smile on his face he responded:
“That’s it!   Give me that  and get out!”  she snatched his tray of congealed  rations and pointed to the exit.
And so poor Danyer  learned the hard way that  asking your wingman to interpret random texts from a random language and applying it to very random foods left him… wacala, ‘ta hungry.

School Supplies

Back in my tight-rolled jeans and GI Joe Lunchbox days, few things put a gleam in my eye like back to school supply shopping.  There was something magical about getting a new Trapper Keeper with hand-picked folders that featured everything from Lamborghinis and Pac-Man to Alf and Garfield.  The Trapper Keeper was a student’s survival pack, so it had to have all essential items for any situation. Letter stencil page with protractor extension? Check.  Plastic pencil pouch?  Check.  Metric measures cheat sheet? Check. Sweet Knight Rider-themed spiral notebook? Check.   Even if I was naked and afraid, I could be dropped in the middle of any school wilderness and emerge victorious over the elements. I still remember my favorite Trapper Keeper: it brandished a hot purple cover with the words Video Rock written in bold, purple neon colors.  The epitome of cool.

Fast forward 20 years and times have changed.  The real Trapper Keeper has been retired to the School Supplies Hall of Fame and i’m constantly updated by my students on what the new Trapper Keeper is.  This year’s supply of choice is an item that is reflecting the changing demographics of our country.  I truly believe that by 2025, when Hispanics are no longer a minority in the U.S, this school supply will be on the list of every elementary teacher’s supply list.

What is the Trapper Keeper of the future?

Behold el futuro… the Burrito Pencil Pouch:

No Spanish required… but good taste is.  It’s time to Learn Mas.  Buen provecho.

Expel the Evil Spirits

I often refer to my 30 square foot, life-sized shoe box office as “La Cueva de Enseñanza” (the cave of learning), where sometimes, anything but learning happens. Last week was one of those days with  Guillermo, the  muchacho who once asked me  if it was  normal  for his sweat to smell like tamales  after  having  eaten  a plate of tamales followed by a  15 minute run  (see  “The Smell of Tamales” ).

Fifth period started out  like a  finely tuned educational orchestra:  all three  students  were  on -task  with purpose and direction.  I  moved from student to student looking over homework and  answering questions as I proudly  conducted the  three-piece  ensemble .   And then, only 10 minutes into the 50 minute piece, Guillermo’s  decides to stop  strumming his violin and start plucking at it.

As if summoned by some invisible force to stop working, he looks up from his biology assignment   and directs a question at me, even though I was turned away from him looking at my computer.

“Hey mister… are you on twitter?”

Slightly annoyed at the  interruption  to  my  educational symphony ,  I kept looking at my  computer  and  simply replied , “No”, hoping my flatness would bore him and  he would once again  reconnect with the rest of the hive.

“What about  instagram?”

Again, without turning around, I gave a flat  “no.”

“and what about  Facebook?”

Hoping he would sync  back into the circadian rhythm of the room, I chose to engage him .

“Yes,” still facing away from him.

“I’m going to friend request you.”  he mused, staring off into  some unknown land.

“Sorry, I don’t have any students on my Facebook account.  Can you please get back to your work?”

“Why not?”  he had succeeded in disconnecting me from my imaginary symphony and sucked me into his cacophonous   pluck-pluck-plucking of the violin string.

“Because good boundaries make good teacher/student relationships.” I replied, now turning to face him.

“Well, what if I joined your church… then we’d be brothers!” he concluded,  proud of his  new-found logic.

Normally I would have a quick witted, sarcastic comment to such off the wall remarks, but  I could see the other two students were starting to waver off their  balance of harmony,  so I just said, “Umm… that’s not how it works.  Now please get back to work.”

Guillermo relented, and as if he had never disconnected from the symphony, continued  right back in rhythm…

For  about ten more minutes.

The needle on the record player scratched and that same strange force drew him out of  the flow and I heard him ask another student, “Hey… what kinda truck you getting?”

“Ford F150… and i’m gonna raise it” came the proud reply from the other student.  For those unfamiliar with the finer things of rural life, ‘raising  your truck’ means adding extra suspension to it so the body of the truck is completely separated from the wheels.  Very classy.

I spun around from my screen and with a slightly annoyed tone said, “Maybe if you spent more time raising your grades… instead of your truck, you’d graduate on time.”

They both laughed at   the  reverse logic that would soon become a motivational meme,  and  went back to work.  Peace and  diligence once again reigned in the  Cave of Learning.

Until Guillermo abruptly got up and stepped toward the door.

“Be right back,” he said and slipped through the door without waiting for a response.

I looked out the window to see where he had gone,  but he was right outside the door, just standing there as if he was waiting on a bus with a slight grimace on his face.

About a 30 seconds   passed and  he stepped back in, waving his hand behind him.

“Guillermo… what are you doing? You can’t just leave—.”

“I know, I know… sorry mister.  Es que tenia que expulsar los malos espiritus (I had to expel  the bad spirits).   Better  out than in, you know,” his boyish face  obviously proud of his discretion.  He then added, “but I think some of them may have followed me in,” as he  continued  waving his hand vigorously.

The other students  seemed to ignore him, which I was thankful for since the realization of what he had just done would have turned my symphony orchestra into a mosh pit.

“Fine… just  get back to work … and don’t conjure up anything else.”

Actual motivational poster found in the Cave of Learning





‘El Vigilante”

A Suburban Luchador stands for certain principles: taming of the lawn, wiping of the butts, and defending the cause of the defenseless.

The other day as I patrolled my area of the safari called “public school”, I spied one of my students cuddling with a certain male species. I’ve known this girl since she was in 7th grade and have worked with her and her family in many ways. So, needless to say, this ‘cuddling’ needed to be addressed.

As I first circled around, I made sure to make eye contact with her as I signaled with my index and ring finger to my eyes and then silently mouthed “I’m watching you” in the best Batman/vigilante tone I could muster. But that wasn’t enough. It was time to swoop in for a closer evaluation.

I came up with a random excuse for a conversation and then approached the enamored couple.

“So Lupita… I heard you’re going to do a rap at our upcoming event,” I said, looking directly at the guy, an Asian boy with wispy black hair and quiet demeanor.

“Yeah mister… I got you!” she said, in her usually perky tone.

“And who is this young chap?” I inquired.

“Oh… this is Carl!” she beamed.

I greeted him with my best Mr. Roger’s tone.  “Hello, Carl. I’m Mr. Rivera.” I shook his limp hand as he gave me a brief “hi.”

To keep him on his toes, I went switched back to ‘El Vigilante’.  “This here is a very special girl. She’s loved by a lot of teachers around here. Did you know that, punk?”

“Uhh… I guess.” he mumbled, looking nervously around.

I got a little closer so he could hear my raspy voice. Lupita was starting to look a bit concerned.

“Ever heard of  ‘Jack Bauer Justice’?” I asked him.

“Who’s  Jack  Bauer?”

“Never mind.  You see those trees over there?”

He looked and nodded.

“And that window? And the spot on the wall down there?”
He looked at both randomly picked spots and nodded, curiosity mixed with tension covering his boyish face.

“Those are my eyes… I’m everywhere.” My tone oozing with mystery and creepiness.

“Uhhh… umm” was all he could say to this terrifying new reality.

“I’m like the NSA, FBI, CIA and MIB… all in one.”

“MIB, like Men in—”

“Never mind what they stand for! You just need to know… i’m watching you,” I Batmaned, index and ring finger on my fixed eyes as I backed away slowly, slowly.  It would have been the perfect opportunity to throw a smoke bomb from my utility belt and then disappear into the night, but all I had was my black leather belt.  So I turned around and just walked away… but it made  for a  good closure to my “scared straight” tactic.

Later on, Lupita walked into my class for after school tutoring.

“That was an awkward talk you had with Carl.” she said.

“Well, he’ll probably never meet your parents, so it was necessary… who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”

“Yeah… well… thanks for talking with him,” she smiled.


I covered myself with my imaginary cape and gave her a stern look.

“No problem.  And… tell all your friends about me.”