Of Roses and Detention

By Leticia Bustillos, Associate Director, Education Policy Project


Leticia Bustillos

My favorite teacher gave me detention in the eighth grade. And he gave me roses in my senior year, when he heard I was granted admission to one of the Ivies.

This juxtaposition of tough and kind best exemplifies why John O’Hara was an outstanding and memorable teacher. He placed incredible demands on his students because he believed in our potential and recognized our hard-fought accomplishments with unexpected yet sincerely thoughtful gestures. This week, as we celebrate teachers across the country, I commend the work of Mr. O’Hara and the significant role he played in my life.

By the time I reached eighth grade, I was pretty certain about who I was as a student. I was hardworking, a bit of a perfectionist, and a collector of random facts and figures. Never, ever was I one to get into trouble. I was a quiet kid who chose to demonstrate my “smarts” not in what I said, but in what I wrote. This was deliberate. It was a form of self-preservation when being the “smart one” often led to teasing. Mr. O’Hara changed this in many ways.

He was a tall, bespectacled White man standing out in a sea of brown faces. His formal cadence in a world of slang stood out awkwardly, and his precise mannerisms were simply foreign to a group of sarcastic kids who were too cool for school. But in Mr. O’Hara I found a kindred spirit. I read voraciously, and my speech was peppered with the words I acquired from many hours in the library.

In Mr. O’Hara’s class I felt that my dreams of going to college and seeing the world were possible. The evidence of this possibility was scattered across the walls of his classroom, where college pennants and pictures of far-flung places shared space with posters of famous figures and notable quotations. He challenged me at every opportunity to make these dreams real.

This is where the juxtaposition that is Mr. O’Hara came to a head. I was part of his after-school “Great Books” program, essentially a class of slightly coerced yet self-selected students who would read literature not in found in the eighth-grade curriculum. I was also involved in too many activities, drama being one of them, with a big performance at the end of the school year.

GraduationI had gone through nine years of education without a single instance of getting into trouble, yet Mr. O’Hara warned us that he would take no excuses. We made a commitment to our after-school program, and he expected us to honor that commitment.

During our drama dress rehearsal, I realized how serious he was when the vice principal of the school escorted me to her office and told me that I had detention. I was upset, embarrassed, and, most of all, scared to be trouble. “But I have a good excuse!” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” she replied, “You have to honor your word.” Integrity was everything, and Mr. O’Hara expected nothing less from me.

Fast-forward four years and there is a bouquet of red roses sitting on my desk in first-period English. Tucked in was a note, in that same oh-so-precise handwriting, congratulating me on my acceptance to Columbia University.

“You made it,” the note said. “You are on your way!”

Today I honor Mr. O’Hara, and all the great teachers in our schools, for your deep affection for the students you work with. For your selflessness in too often doing with less when you need so much more. For your love of learning and willingness to share that with others. For the high expectations you hold for your students and the tough love you mete out daily to ensure they are fulfilling their potential.

Of roses and detention, that’s what you are. There is beauty in the juxtaposition, and I am grateful for the role it has played in shaping my life.

How One Teacher Is Helping Kids Achieve Greatness

To commemorate Teacher Appreciation Week we caught up with Ruth Valdes, a teacher at Amigos for Kids, a Miami-based Affiliate, to find out what issues are on teachers’ minds. We also asked her about life as an Escalera instructor and how the program can help kids achieve success.


Ruth (front, far left) with other Escalera Affiliate instructors doing some Chicago sight-seeing after a long training day.

NCLR: When did Amigos for Kids become an Affiliate and why? What are the benefits?

Valdes: Amigos joined NCLR as an Affiliate in 2008 given the entity’s important advocacy work on behalf of Hispanics for over 40 years. Miami-Dade County has a diverse representation of the Hispanic population. Our mission is to reach Hispanic families throughout the country with our message of child abuse prevention. Being an Affiliate of NCLR has provided numerous opportunities to continue to create awareness and provide services to children and families.

One of the benefits is having been selected to implement NCLR’s Escalera Program. In March 2014, Amigos for Kids began the implementation at Mater Academy East High School. Amigos for Kids was excited to partner with Mater Academy East because it was an opportunity to provide further services for these students. Since implementation, the students have become leaders within the school. They have learned important skills, such as résumé-writing and interviewing. Additionally, they were given the opportunity to implement the skills they have learned through work internships. As a result, the students have become more responsible in terms of school work and extracurricular activities.

NCLR: How do you hope the Escalera Program will have a positive impact on the youth you serve?

Valdes: The youth population at Mater Academy East High School has a majority of Hispanic and low-income students. Most of the students live in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, which is predominantly Central American. The students at Mater who participate in the Escalera Program come from humble, hard-working families who want to see their children succeed as professionals.

I hope that by having participated in the Escalera Program, my students develop a sense of responsibility beyond the classroom walls and become active participants in our community in many diverse roles.

NCLR: What is your favorite part of working with the Escalera Program and with Amigos for Kids?

Valdes: The best part of working with the Escalera Program is the students, seeing their growth: watching them go from shy, hesitant students to assertive young adults who proudly flaunt their new strengths. Additionally, Amigos for Kids provided me the opportunity, along with two of my students and a parent, to attend NCLR’s 2014 Conference in Los Angeles. It was especially rewarding to witness the interaction of these students with other students and participants of the Conference and exchange ideas and views. They were able to travel, network, learn, and even meet the president of NCLR.

As an instructor, I also enjoyed the opportunity to network with other Escalera participants from around the country at the NCLR Conference and at the NCLR training hosted in Chicago in August 2014. It was clear that, as instructors, we had a lot in common!

NCLR: How would you describe the life of an Escalera instructor? What’s a daily schedule like? What is most challenging and rewarding?

Valdes: Our job is hectic but fulfilling. A daily schedule for me includes teaching all day, conducting an Escalera session after school, having discussions with the students about their concerns or what’s new, and responding to emails and calls from students who need a letter of recommendation or a job reference. I have to juggle many responsibilities and be extremely flexible. However, I also enjoy the invaluable reward of seeing the students make progress in so many ways.

NCLR: What is something you have learned about working with youth that you would like to share with other professionals?

Valdes: If I could share one thing that I have learned from working with young people in different settings, it is that there is a way to reach them. Working with the youth doesn’t have to be a fight; it’s not “us” versus “them.” It can be a win-win scenario. Getting to that point is not always easy, but it is very rewarding. Working with Escalera has been especially rewarding because I’ve had the opportunity to pay it forward and serve as a role model for Hispanic students. The biggest reward of the program has been the encouragement and confidence that it provides for the students. Escalera has enlightened the students to see possibilities, to the belief that si se puede!