Chuck Leming was a 'C' student who became Alameda County's Teacher of the Year, but during his crowning year he lost a child and vowed to not lose one of his students. This is a story of a educator teaching and learning the lessons of life
On any given day, a student in one of Chuck Leming's classes can be subjected to a barrage of office products. They fly through the air with a litany of biting one-liners tagging along for the ride.
They can come at any moment's notice. It's a war zone, but the students don't see it as such. It's far better than sitting to a constant droning about mathematical principles. Leming, in fact, thinks math is boring
A student in the back row wants Leming to go over a question she saw the night before on television's "Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" After discussing the problem, as is the custom on the TV show where the contestant wagers money against his answer, another student wearing entirely black yells, "Would you bet your paycheck?"
"Since you don't have as much as me, I won't take that bet," said Leming.
"How much do you have?" said another boy with a black hooded sweatshirt.
Sidestepping the question for moment, Leming says to the boy, "How much do you have in your savings account?"
"Between three and four grand."
Leming quickly shoots back to the delight of some of the boy's buddies sitting around him, "Then you don't have enough to match my paycheck."
Leming's been around, so he knows the difference between educational babble and what it takes in the real world. It's quite ironic, but common, that your teacher--the supposed smartest person in a student's life, wasn't such a good student himself.
"In school I cheated, lied and only went there for the social aspect and girls,” says Leming. In high school, Leming was a sweet-swinging outfielder for his baseball team. Although he couldn't field a lick. A few pro scouts visited his games in Grass Valley to watch Leming and some other players, but his nascent career on the diamond was cut short at 16 when the coach caught him smoking.
“The coach said he was going to punch my lights out. I was cocky back then.”
Like some of the student's he sees today, school just wasn't for Leming during his teenage years.
“There’s a purpose in life and education was not part of it for me then,” he said.
His brother was different. He breezed through school as the quintessentially perfect older brother, but Leming wasn't hearing the message. His father told him: “My boys are going to college. He saw my report card and said, ‘That’s a C, that means average. I don’t have sons that are average.’ I said, 'You do now.’”
THE BLUE COLLAR YEARS
In fact, he fit the definition of the word exactly when he graduated from high school in Los Angeles, he was 175th out of 350 students; dead smack in the middle, the model of mediocrity. While some college student's of the tumultuous late 1960's received deferments from the fighting in Vietnam, it was the average middle-class and poor Americans who did the conflicts bidding. Leming wasn't drafted; he drove down to the Army recruiting station and joined. "We were supposed to be fighting communism," he said, although his foreign adventure to the Far East went only as far as the concrete jungles of Staten Island, NY. He jokes that he knew a lot about New York City's more risqué and ribald location while serving his country.
Upon returning to Northern California, Leming would spend the next 15 years doing everything from installing windshields, delivering auto parts, selling photo copiers and driving trucks. Through three economic downturns in the early and late 1970's and a recession in 1981, Leming began to think about the future of himself and his family. What once was anathema to his being as a teenager, became the path to a good life. In fact, both Leming and his wife became teachers later in life. Leming's wife teaches seventh-graders in the Dublin school system.
“When I went to college I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what a B.A. or a B.S. was. I choose a B.S. because I knew I was half-way there. I was a country boy.”
Leming would graduate from then Cal State Hayward in 1985 and begin his teaching career at San Leandro High School shortly after, but while studying for his teaching credential he received advice from an instructor that struck a chord with him, meshed with his personality and would come to define his teaching style for the next two decades.
“If you’re able to bring your family life into the classroom, they will think about you as a person, instead of a teacher and you’ll have less behavioral problems,” recalls Leming. He would later find that assumption works both ways.
When you first see Leming, you don’t see a middle school teacher. You might see a fire inspector or a grizzled foreman on a construction site walking about the skeletal frame of a building with a metal clipboard and ill-fitting white helmet sitting high upon his head. He might be saying, “Fix that sheet rock over there and these beams are at the wrong angle.” Whether he’s a teacher or the foreman for a building’s construction, the core of Leming is to get things right and build a strong foundation, to watch something lasting and beautiful be erected.
A GUN-TOTING CONSERVATIVE EDUCATOR
In real life, Leming is in his early 60’s. His foundation laid long ago has worn on the outside. His head is ringed by short white hair that reveals a bald, but tanned pate. He wears oversized bifocals rimmed by thin gold metal. When he speaks the first thing you notice is that his mouth shifts slightly to the left as if the words are tumbling over his molars instead of his front teeth. With the baldness and the glasses, you might not make the connection, but when the gruff manner of his speech is uttered off the side of his face, it occurs to you that Leming being Leming is a lot like Leming doing a passable impression of Dick Cheney or Dick Cheney is doing a great impression of Chuck Leming.
The thing is Leming probably doesn’t mind the connection to the dark lord of the right, because like Cheney, Leming is a Republican. This is probably one of the few in existence amongst the rigidly liberal teacher’s union. It’s no problem for Leming because much of what his teaching style is about is born the anachronistic Republican mantra of one “picking oneself up by the bootstraps”.
“I believe this is the land of milk and honey. All the options are available if you want them bad enough,” he says.
Maybe Leming's students are more behaved than others because they know about his gun collection. He's a registered member of the National Rifle Association and own 20 guns, including a gun safe. He doesn't hunt animals anymore, he says, but enjoys honing his accuracy shooting clay pigeons, although he hasn't been to the range much lately.
While Leming gives the impression of Dick Cheney, his politics when it comes to education are staunchly moderate. Being neither a great student, nor a poor student, the accolades for those in the middle are non-existent.
'I WOULD HAVE BEEN IN THIS PROGRAM'
Three years ago, Leming became the coordinator for a program that tries to remedy "the middle" and find those underperforming students and make the middle less middling and more a model for a well-rounded student population.
Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) sounds like a newfangled right wing program that isolates a group to battle the fight of survival of fitness while the game is tilted to favor another desirable group. But this program is different. It doesn’t take disadvantaged children or high-achievers, its core value is that it focuses on the “middle”. Its success depends on faculty searching deeply for students who might become diamonds in the rough and gives them the opportunities and skills not afforded to children who may have been raised in a household where college was not a matter whether my grades were good enough or if the college fund could afford four years of higher education. It’s a remedy for a country where the economical divide is widening at the edges with the rich getting richer and the poor getting devastatingly poor.
The AVID classes are small. A student must maintain a 3.0 grade-point average or leave the program after two semesters. AVID isn't a class like math, English or social studies, it's all those classes; a sort of Grand Central Station for all those courses that lead to Leming's wrath.
A tiny eighth grade girl named Fatima Costa is in Leming's intervention math class, that like AVID, focuses on a small group of students who are struggling. According to Leming, classes like these will be among the first to be cut if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget cuts come to fruition.
Less than a minute before the bell is about to ring, a few students milling around the classroom chatting with their friends hear Leming announce, "Anyone who isn't sitting in their seats when the bells rings will be tardy!"
The smallish girl turns, covers the side of her mouth to cover it from Leming's view and mutters, in a hushed tone, "He's so mean."
Maybe Leming heard her and maybe he didn't, but later in the period when she's not listening to him, he admonishes her by saying, "You haven't been doing that good, Fatima. If you don't do better you're going to have to go to Home Depot and get a big box from a refrigerator to live in."
As he walks away, she glances my way and contorts her face as to say, "See, I told you he was mean."
Leming has a certain fondness for these type of students, because he sees himself in them and does not believe 40 years has changed them much.
“I don’t think they’re worse. That’s what a lot of teachers will say, but I think they’re a whole lot smarter. They have so much access to information on television or the internet. The only thing is they’re not as motivated because of it--I wasn’t either,” he says
As students begin encountering problems with their math homework, one boy, slightly overweight for his age and befitting the stereotype that large people tend to be jollier than others asks Leming for some help.
"Don't start teasing me," the boy quickly says before Leming can lay a zinger on him. Leming grabs the long lanyard around the boy’s neck, pulls him close and feigns slapping his face. The boy laughs. After Leming's instructions, the boy utters in exasperation, "Ohh. H=3"
"See," says Leming, "You're not as dumb as I think you are."
After noticing too many students were having problems with the same question, Leming switches on the overhead and goes over the problem. A boy in the front row still doesn't understand. "I don't understand what you're doing?" he says.
“What are you talking about? Close your eyes and hit yourself in the back of the head because I’m too lazy to go over there and do it myself,” Leming says.
"If I was a student these days, I would be in this class," says Leming shortly before heaving a crumpled paper at the attendance girl. The girl runs out the door shrieking as the wad grazes her back.
"I had a poor family and my GPA was between 2.0 and 3.5, but I tested well. I would be in this program," he says.
He says a whopping 96 percent of all students in the program enroll in secondary education. AVID is not about churning out high school diplomas, but college graduates. To illustrate the point, when this year's crop of AVID students graduate from middle school, they will receive a medal with an inscription that reads not the class of 2012, but of 2016, four years after high school.
THE FORMER 'C' STUDENT DOES GOOD
"A high school diploma doesn't mean anything in California, anymore. I mean, you should see the kids they're giving diplomas to nowadays," says Leming.
What Leming believes about a typical student's life after high school is the 800-pound gorilla sitting in, not only the science room, but in every room, not everyone is cut out for college, so why jam a round peg into a square hole?
"No Child Left Behind wants every student to be proficient to the same point and have everybody go to college. It's not realistic," he says, "We need secretaries. We need people in the service industry."
His version of education utopia is rooted deeply in his own life and about face he encountered in his own life. "Not everybody is into numbers and letters. There should be a vocational option with a bridge back to academics, if they decide. The way it is, now, you're left to sink or swim," he says.
The former "C" student who toiled in car parts and haulers before taking advantage of his own self-made bridge to teaching did pretty well for himself when the San Leandro Unified School District made him their teacher of the year for the 2007-08 school year.
The school's librarian, Russ Tomlin, after failing to get Leming the award the year before, surreptitiously nominated him again. Leming believed the first time he wouldn't receive the award because of a veneer of ageism in the process. The school district doesn't want an old guy as its top instructor, they want a young teacher, he believed. This time he got it, but seriously doubted he could win the state's prize. You're not going to get Leming to fawn over something just to get his name on a plaque.
Leming answered a questionnaire of 14 questions by slamming the state's credential program, No Child Left Behind and teacher training. It may or may not have ended his chance of winning the statewide prize, but he believed the Department of Education wouldn't want a winner who disagreed with them so passionately.
"Take me the way I am, or don't ask the question," he says.
Of course, he said he was "humbled and honored" and realizes there's many teachers in the district who are "equal or better than him." He says this because he thinks he got the award out of sympathy.
Not every student is destined to thrive, while not every child is destined to struggle. In September of 2006, shortly before what should have been the crowning year of Leming’s teaching career, he received word that his 30-year-old son was dead.
RECEIVING GOD'S GRACE
His son, Christopher, left behind a wife, an 8-year-old girl and an 18-month old boy. He had suffered through heroin addiction for awhile. Leming knew about it. The irony is that it wasn't heroin that killed him in the downstairs of a Philadelphia train station, but the purveyors of the drug that stalk the abuser in murky corners and creepy shadows. The police don't know exactly what happened to Christopher Leming that day. The police report says he was stabbed with a syringe filled with a powerful painkiller often used to cut heroin. The police think the attack may have been part of a gang initiation stunt. Leming thinks this story is probably true because his son tended to be a very private drug user and shooting up in the middle of Philly doesn't sound like him.
Leming last saw his son two months before his untimely death and believed he had been recently clean for the drugs. He spoke with him the day before he died and on his last day told his wife and daughter he loved them.
Leming still refers to his son in the present tense because he believes his son still with him. He's been visited by his son three times.
While sleeping in a lonely hotel room and resting his head on a foreign pillow and unfamiliar blankets to warm his body, he was awakened by a bright light. At first, he thought he dozed off with the lights on, but when he opened his eyes, the room was pitch black. It happened again. This time he thought the light was emanating from outside. Some jerk must be shining his high beams through the window. "I was ready to yell at them, but everything was dark," he says.
"It said to me that he's in Heaven and he's waiting for me and I'm going to go to Heaven because he waiting for me," he says.
Leming didn't need such a spiritual episode to awaken his religious beliefs. He attends Catholic mass with his wife regularly, but this episode made the afterlife and the prospects of seeing his son again even more real. Christopher came to religion late in his life, says Leming.
Christopher's mom kept her son's Bible and copies scribbling from the margins to her Bible. On one page she found, "To be a good man, you must know God." Leming and his wife searched the Bible inside and out to find that equation, but couldn't find it. A Google search of the phrase doesn't yield one hit. A local Catholic priest said he doesn't recall such a passage with that exact phrasing.
As Leming's eyelids begin to redden and tears start welling up he says, "He was telling me he was a good man"
"I've never been angry about his death. My wife says, 'It's because you've received God's grace," he says.
THE OAK TREES
To say Leming has coped with his son's death wouldn't be honest. When a child dies under circumstances that might breed snickering, but compassion, nonetheless, a lot of doubt sneaks into the minds of mourners when the hugs and support leave to deal with their own lives.
"I think it's natural to say, 'What could I have done differently to change the outcome'," he says,
"We did the best we could, but addiction was something genetic, a defect in his genes."
One day, while driving to his gun club in Livermore, Leming passed by a line of large oak trees on the side of the road. He was just thinking, but still, he wondered what would happen if he steered his car into those trees as a way of hastening a chance to see his son again in Heaven. Just thinking-thinking, as the math teacher that he is, he calculated the speed of the car to be too slow to do anything but total it. So he increased the pressure on the pedal just slightly to accelerate the car. At that moment, the thinking-thinking ceased and a flood of rationality cascaded over his troubled mind.
"I began to think this wouldn't be fair to my wife, or my daughter, or my grandchildren," he said, "I felt it would have been selfish, but I wanted to see my son again."
"I laugh every time I see those oak trees," says Leming.
People react vastly different to death. Leming's wife doesn't like to talk about her son's death, while her husband finds it "therapeutic."
Because Leming believes students identify and respond better when a teacher opens his private life to the classroom, like a family that revels in good times, it conversely rallies around itself in the bad.
I'VE LOST MY SON, I WON'T LOSE MY STUDENTS
When he returned from bereavement leave, he spoke to students about his son. He left nothing out. This would be no different than a lecture on the Pythagorean Theorem. His son’s demise would be a life lesson for these kids. Some girls cried with Leming as he delivered the news. The obvious human response is usually, “How?” He could have told them anything to cover the hurt and embarrassment of a teacher’s son dying. But he didn’t, he told them straight up: my son abused drugs and because of that, he died.
Students that would be touched with tragedy easily gravitated to Leming. He held one student whose uncle was killed in long, heartfelt embrace one day in the hallway outside his classroom because that's how the grieving help others--by diffusing some of the pain from those recently struck by life's wrong turns.
That would not be the end of the conversation, despite the pain and heartache of losing a child. Leming wasn’t going to lose any of these children, either. As part of a writing exercise about a loved one, Leming decided to write his own about his son and read it aloud to the class. This time his voice cracked and tears slowly inched over the bottom lids of his eyes. A solemn sense drifted over the students; those same girls began to cry again and the boys shifted uncomfortably in their chairs and bowed their heads in respect as he read these nine lines:
I am a husband.
I am a father.
I am a grieving father who lost a son.
I am working on getting better.
I am sad that I will never see my son again.
I am happy for my son has shown me he’s in Heaven and the he is waiting for me.
I am always crying with my wife
I am emotionally distraught many nights as I talk to my son.
I am thankful for my wife and students that have held me and cried with me.
The message was clear. Chuck Leming lost one of his children; his own son. But his life work has been about saving the hundreds of children who watched his peculiar classroom antics and learned about themselves and how to succeed in society. Life isn’t perfect and families are far from it, but nonetheless, every so often, a child does something to say “I love you.” When Chuck Leming stood before a banquet room atop the hill at Cal State-East Bay and accepted his teacher of the year award a few generations of San Leandro students said thank you for making them a better person and a son rejoiced in the celebration of his dad.
This story is dedicated to Marsha Ginsburg. The teacher who reminded me to write with "soul".