Gerardo Martinez can't keep from smiling as the eighth-grade graduates at Boston's William H. Taft School file down the aisle in their royal blue caps and gowns.
He looks more like a proud parent than their English teacher, standing along the side of the old auditorium snapping photos.
For Mr. Martinez, saying goodbye isn't easy. He has spent his first two years of teaching with most of these students. He had many of them last year when he taught seventh grade.
"You always hear about the teachers who say, 'I'm glad they're gone,' but I really don't feel that way," Martinez says. "I've invested a lot of time in these kids. I'll miss their personalities, because all of them have come alive, and they're very vivid in my head."
He acknowledges that it's been a demanding year for him and his 77 students. Like all good teachers, he wonders whether he's done enough to prepare them for the next level. Yet he is proud of their achievements and is confident that they will excel in ninth grade.
"I believe I've done a very good job with these kids," he says matter-of-factly. "They've been exposed to lots of rich literature. They've written a lot. They've responded a lot. And they've learned literary techniques."
Consider: Over the course of the year, each of his four classes has read four novels, written as many essays, kept a journal, and studied some three-dozen short stories and poems.
"There really isn't an eighth-grade mind-set or an eighth-grade curriculum or level," he says. "I just give them as much as they can handle and oftentimes it's above the eighth-grade level."
Keeping the heat on
His commitment to that standard hasn't wavered throughout the school year - even during the last few hot weeks.
The warm weather seems to signal to students it's time to slack off. Many were absent more often, and Martinez had to get them caught up. He also had to administer achievement tests and complete stacks of paperwork.
Yet while other teachers were rolling out the VCR, Martinez was pushing as if it were September.
One recent Friday, not two weeks before graduation, Martinez was fuming. Only four students had done their homework. So he made them finish it during class.
Ask his students if they've worked hard this year, and they practically object to the question.
"I felt like I was taking college courses," says William Onuoha. Previous teachers never pushed him hard, he says. "Here, everything we do has to be perfect."
"If we get low grades, he pushes us to bring them up," says Ablolom Woldeslassie.
Adds Christopher Winslow: "Mr. Martinez showed us how to reach our goals without anyone helping."
While not all his students have finished the year on grade level, Martinez says, each of them has reached a "new" level this year.
An encouraging word
Many are growing up the hard way. They have moved from foster home to foster home or have had relatives killed in the streets.
"Whatever they do, you have to always give them encouragement," Martinez says. "They're so sensitive. The wrong word, the wrong gesture could really ruin it."
One student who was constantly suspended started working the last two marking periods. "Even the kids said, 'Man, I never knew you were that smart.' He probably broke through some barrier that we were unaware of."
For many students, Martinez has become a friend. Having grown up in the Bronx, he can relate to them, and they have anointed him with one of their highest honors: He's cool.
At graduation, as Martinez makes his way into the crowded school lobby, a crush of students descends upon him. Some hug him, others say thank you, but they all want their picture taken with their English teacher.
"Over here, Mr. Martinez," calls one boy as he tries to pull Martinez away from a crowd. "My parents want to take our picture."
"We're going to miss him," says Angela Tran, clutching her diploma and a yellow carnation.
"She always talks about him," says Vashti Joseph, whose daughter, Melissa, was in Martinez's class. With his help, she says, her daughter was able to go from getting C's to A's and B's.
"You're essential," says one proud father, shaking Martinez's hand. "Keep up the good work."
Working around obstacles
Martinez himself has learned a lot. Another year in the classroom, he says, has made him a more solid and confident teacher.
He's also learned to work around obstacles. "One thing I did learn this year was to be flexible enough to work when there are problems beyond your control," Martinez says. The school, for example, was short a computer teacher, which put his class schedules constantly in flux.
He also spent $700 of his own money to buy books, marker boards, and folders.
"I feel it's an obligation," he says, rather nonplused by the sum he's spent. "If [the school] isn't providing it for me and I need it to improve my teaching, I'm going to buy the boards ... get the extra markers, and if it's a book they'll love, I'm going to buy it."
What hasn't changed is his approach. "My philosophy is pretty firm with regard to exposing kids to good literature, making things new, making it interesting, and finding pertinent themes and ideas that are going to get these kids to think and talk."
Among this year's themes: personal codes, defining yourself, metamorphoses, secrets and sacrifices, and dreams.
Martinez is already thinking about next fall. He'll be teaching seventh grade, and he plans to spend his summer reading books and preparing lessons.
"I'll do all the planning ... and thinking. I'll clip articles and watch shows and make all the connections ahead of time.
"I'll call parents over the summer, let them know who I am and what I plan to do ... and what I expect from [students]. So on the first day of school, there's no time wasted - boom," he says, smacking his hands together.
Martinez has also decided to get a master's degree. This summer he will begin a two-year program in administration at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
The degree, which he will get while teaching, will enable him to become a principal. "Things are changing so rapidly. Teachers are leaving, administrators are leaving, and schools are rushing to redefine who they are."
"It's not to say I'm going to leave teaching," he contends, "because it's my first love.... And if I become a principal or an administrator years from now, it will be with the understanding that I will continue to teach."
Martinez won't be all business this summer. High on his list is listening to his extensive collection of flamenco music."
But, he says, he will be ready for school come September. "If I weren't here, my life would be real boring," he says. "I'll read and I'll learn more and I'll probably go to a musical and a play this summer, but this is where life is."
* Last in a series. Previous articles ran Sept. 9, Dec. 9, 1996; April 7, 1997.