Gerardo Martinez knows the difference one teacher can make.
Years ago, his 11th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Oestricher, gave him a gift. She "was able to discern that I was struggling," says Mr. Martinez, a Boston public school teacher who at the time was aspiring to be a journalist. "At the end of my junior year she gave me three grammar books [along with] a little card that read: 'It was wonderful to have you in class. Will you win the Pulitzer Prize some day?' I felt, here's somebody who has tremendous faith in me."
Martinez, who is starting his second year teaching eighth-grade English at William H. Taft School in Boston's Brighton neighborhood, wants to send a similar message of hope and expectation to his students - many of whom are surrounded by the same drugs and violence he once experienced.
Martinez represents the future wave of teachers that schools hope to recruit as they prepare for massive retirements over the next decade. He is Hispanic and speaks three languages - English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He can challenge anyone to a game of who's who in Shakespeare. He knows the latest slang - and the latest in student fashion. And the classroom is where he most wants to be.
A bit of an actor - as he believes most good teachers must be - he rarely stays behind a desk, opting instead to perch on the edge of a table or file up and down the rows of desks as he speaks.
His teaching philosophy is relatively simple: Make the subject relate to the students - help them make sense of the world.
"Every child is a learner, every child is full of questions, is full of life, and wants answers," says Martinez, each phrase punctuated by thoughtful pauses. "So as a teacher, you have to understand that, and you have to be willing to figure out what worries them."
Wearing a striped tie, blue dress shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses, he looks as if he belongs at one of New England's preppy suburban schools. In fact, he turned down two such offers over the summer to return to Taft.
The school represents familiar territory to Martinez. Raised in the Bronx in New York City, Martinez knows what worries many of his students. Nearly all his friends are either dead or in jail - except for his best friend, who he says was "his right-hand man in the war." He and his sister were the only kids in the neighborhood to go to college.
"These kids are concerned about gangs, they're concerned about safety ... about going to college ... about relationships, they're concerned about what it means to be an adult," he says. "So through literature I address those concerns."
He spent the entire summer poring over books and poetry and short stories, carefully crafting a curriculum that he thinks will speak to his students. To illustrate the difficulty of living in a utopian society, for example, he's selected "The Giver" by Lois Lowry. He's also chosen "The Year of Impossible Goodbyes," by Sook Nyui Choi, about a Korean girl and her family during World War II who suffer the cruelties of Japanese occupation until they are forced to flee to the south.
Each of his five classes this year will read roughly 10 books. They will keep a "discovery journal" and regularly write essays. Martinez has also picked dozens of short stories, myths, and legends as well as a handful of poems the students must memorize. In addition, they will have weekly vocabulary, grammar, and spelling quizzes. In fact, on the first two days, he hit his students with a spelling quiz and a test on literary concepts.
While the curriculum is cutting edge, Martinez's classroom is not.
Taft, which is housed in a red-brick, five-story building, just celebrated its 100th anniversary last May. Martinez's room is cavernous, with creaky wooden floors and 10-foot-tall windows. The lime-green walls - a signature of the 1960s, when the school was last renovated - are cracked and peeling. And the blackboards are so old that anything Martinez writes on them becomes permanent. In fact, he just spent $400 of his own money to buy three large white marker boards.
In some ways, it's ironic that Martinez is here at all, reliving much of what he tried to escape while growing up.
He was raised in a five-story tenement on 179th Street, Burnside, and University, practically in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.
His father is from Cuba, and his mother, who died five years ago, was from Puerto Rico. Neither went to college. His father, who never finished high school, worked in a loose leaf notebook factory while Martinez and his sister were growing up. His mother worked in retail sales.
"We were forced to grow up before we were ready, because my parents worked all the time," he says. "So my sister and I took care of the house - we cooked, we cleaned, we helped our parents pay the bills."
In ninth grade, Martinez gained admission to John F. Kennedy High School in Riverdale, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the Bronx. He spent four years in the honors program, earning all A's and B's, at the same time working as a cashier in his grandfather's grocery store.
His first dream was to be a journalist. In the fall of 1989, he was accepted into the journalism program at Northeastern University in Boston. He worked 40 hours a week as a server in a hotel to pay his way while carrying a full course load.
But financially it was a strain, so he dropped out. That summer, his aunt suggested he take a poetry course - his first love - at the University of Massachusetts. He did, and soon enrolled full time to pursue a degree in English literature. At the same time he lived with a family, taking care of their three small children, and through their encouragement he decided to declare a major in education.
He chose public-school teaching, he says, because he wanted to give back to a system that had helped him as well as be a role model to students like him.
Taft has an ethnically diverse student body. Last year, students represented 38 different countries. This year, more than 40 percent are black, 25 percent Asian, and 20 percent Hispanic. Most come from lower-income homes and more than 85 percent get free or reduced-price lunches.
Taft's faculty is also more diverse than most public schools: Forty percent are minority. Martinez, however, is the only Hispanic teacher. By comparison, in 1993-1994, only 13 percent of all public school teachers nationally in grades K-12 were minority, according to the National Education Association in Washington.
Martinez places tremendous pressure on himself to be a good teacher, and he holds his students to the same high standards.
"I tell my kids: I don't accept a 60 as a passing grade even though the school does. I accept a 70."
"He's one-of-a-kind," says Mark Burke, a Taft math teacher who has taught in Boston schools for 23 years. "He has a combination of qualities that don't come along too often - his intellect, his sense of caring, and his sense of mirth. But his best asset is that he's from the Bronx," says Mr. Burke, who was Martinez's mentor last year.
Last year, Martinez bought hats and gloves for his students who didn't have them. He also calls each parent at the beginning of the year to introduce himself and outline his expectations for the coming year.
"When kids look at me, they think I'm white middle-class," Martinez contends. But when they find out he speaks Spanish or has friends who were killed on the streets, he says, he earns their respect.
"You don't have to go through the experience [of growing up tough] to understand these kids," he says, "but it's an advantage."
Despite his own struggles, Martinez believes that teenagers today have it harder than he did. "I had a mother and a father. I had a support system.... Many of the kids I teach don't have that.
"These kids come from single-parent homes. The parents are on drugs, or the parents are never there; they are divorced and always fighting.... That's why I'm amazed that ... they're able to learn and come to class and be interested."
Ask him what it takes to be a good teacher, and his response is immediate.
"You have to know your subject," he says. "You have to live that subject. Kids have the uncanny ability to pick out the hypocrites, to pick out those people who just don't care."
"And," he quips, "you've got to like kids."