October 13, 2023
Chris Magallanes didn’t just walk into class. He blew. He liked to show up late, so he could sail through the “open-space” 300 wing of our circa 1972 building, enjoying a full view of his late 80s schoolmates. Beehive hair, letter-jackets, exposed midriffs, all were on display as Chris breezed past one open-ended cove after another, the class spaces separated only by rolling partitions that sufficed for walls in the open space days. By the time he reached our cove at the end of the wing, coolly turning his head side-to-side all the way, he’d taken in some memorable scenery. Chris would blow around the corner into the cove, his wide smile radiating love and enthusiasm for the world.
One morning as Chris swept in fresh from his trip down the wing, late as usual, my third period was just settling with the rest of the wing into our obligatory schoolwide silent reading period. I was a second-year teacher. My seniors much enjoyed rattling my fledgling class management skills, competing to see who could annoy more teachers around the wing at my expense. Little concerned for my reputation for some reason this morning, I sat with my book as probably 20 veteran colleagues in earshot presided dutifully in their coves over their portions of the 500 or 600 teenagers in the wing, modelling how to inculcate a love of reading in the communal quiet. I could hear myself as I suddenly dropped the silence protocol.
When Chris gusted in around the corner, I chirped cheerily at full volume into the silence,
“’Mornin’ there, Cyclone!”
Shattering the last hope for quiet in the wing, I finished my thought: “Nice of you to blow in.”
Chris took his seat looking stunned. In the fullness of teenage hormonal crosscurrents, he had just been culled from the herd. Someone official had recognized him. Publicly. A new name was reaching him now from the adult world. Cyclone!
This was knighthood.
Every day for the rest of the year Chris grinned until I dubbed him afresh: “’Mornin’ Cyclone!” His on-time arrivals skyrocketed.
So really, how wise was this? A still new, untenured English teacher in an unnervingly unforgiving public learning environment breaking the staff agreement on schoolwide silent reading? Unleashing what could easily become a wave of disruption around the wing? Not recommended teacher behavior.
But more than a decade later I learned that sometimes a shot from the teaching hip can have long-term effects that outweigh momentary consequences.
One late-90s evening, I was helping prepare for our school’s spring open house. Emerging into the central rotunda from one of the wings we had long since walled into conventional classrooms, I became a witness to the power of a nickname. The door from the parking lot swung open. Bursting through, still grinning, was a late 20-something Chris Magallanes, clearly pleased to see me.
“Remember me, Mr. Creger?”
“Sure do!” I shot back. “How you doing, Cyclone?”
Chris’ body relaxed. He’d just learned what he came to find out, he confessed, still grinning. Just wanted to know if I still remembered the nickname I’d given him more than ten years earlier. Half his life later, the next generation in full flow through my classroom. The school building itself fundamentally changed. Chris came back because his nickname continued to matter to him. He just wanted to hear me say it again.
25 years later. My final Day 1 with teenagers. My final year of calling roll. It’s August. With retirement three seasons ahead, a familiar name is popping up on my sixth period roster. What? Could Aliah Magallanes be related to …? Sure enough! This beautiful young teenage girl says she has a father named Chris.
Time for a final assignment. Parent Conferences are coming.
I send word through Aliah to have her father come for the last appointment of the evening. When the time comes, the previous parent heads out of the classroom, and a balding man in his early 50s comes in with the same windy energy of 34 years before, now with a tall, graceful teenager, currently my student, just behind him. After we’ve had a nice visit, I hand him the story you just read above, and get out my phone. “Please sit here next to your daughter and read this to her.” I start filming.
Chris reads well, stumbling once or twice as you would, reading something your high school English teacher had written about you, reading it cold in front of your daughter, a teacher from your childhood standing there filming whatever happens. The next day I air-drop the video to Aliah’s phone, thinking they’ll have a nice record of her father’s last assignment from me.
But it wasn’t the last.
For her final assignment, Aliah compiles a portfolio of her writings and reflections from the year she’s spent in my class. She selects four pieces of her writing, and composes descriptions of her favorite classroom activity and favorite reading moment of the year. Following each of these selections with a reflection on how the writing or moment helped her develop academically and personally, Aliah bookends her portfolio with a preface to introduce and self-assessment to culminate the collection.
Once she’s completed it, I ask Aliah to share her portfolio with her father — and give him his last assignment from me. 34 years after the first assignment I gave Chris back in the cove, I give his daughter these instructions for him to follow:
Please write a letter to your daughter responding to her portfolio. Comment on her year’s work and reflections on her growth as a writer and thinker.
In his handwritten letter to his daughter, after thoughtfully complimenting specific writings, Chris writes his closing sentence to his daughter:
Chris finishes off his letter with a smiley face.
It’s Aliah’s turn. She responds to her father with a reflection on how it felt to have him respond to the growth her portfolio had demonstrated. She concludes her note:
Of all the exchanges I’ve witnessed between a student and a parent in my 35 years, this is simply the warmest and most affectionate.
When a shot from the teaching hip ricochets down the generations like that in your 35th year, you’re ready for your next assignment.