Redeeming Public Education

What began as a temporary substitute-teaching job became a holy calling for education professor Pete C. Menjares.
Redeeming Public Education

The students screamed expletives at their substitute teacher, thrusting their middle fingers into the air in defiance. Each time the teacher turned to confront one student, another would launch a spit wad toward his backside.

For many who attempted to teach this unruly middle-school class in South El Monte, a low-income, largely Hispanic neighborhood east of Los Angeles, their first day was also their last. But as angry as Pete Menjares became, he wasn't about to give up. He lunged for the classroom's emergency phone. The usually calm Christian yelled into the receiver, "If you don't get somebody over here to help me right now, I'm going to kill someone."

Within minutes, the principal, vice principal, and head counselor rushed into the classroom. It took half an hour for the four adults to get the students seated and quiet.

"At that moment, the principal looked to me and said, 'Maestro [teacher], teach,'" Menjares remembers. "I preached the sermon of my life. I talked to these kids about respect, discipline, life, my childhood and experiences, college, success, failure. I was just livid. I gave them the ethnic thing. I gave them the cultural thing. I just read them the riot act."

The students began to cry, which infuriated Menjares further. "And what are you crying about?" he shouted. "Why are you sniffling?"

Students began to wail back, "Nobody cares about us!" "They've written us off." They told Menjares how teacher after teacher had come and gone. No one was willing to teach them.

Menjares was shocked when one of the lead teachers said these were the school's honor students.

"That was the defining moment for me as a teacher, where I said, 'I can do something of significance,'" he says. "There are kids in our public schools so destitute, underserved, and needy. They need teachers that can identify with them, relate to them, inspire them, model for them. I felt obligated: How could I turn my back on this group of kids?"

He made a promise to those students: He would continue teaching them through the end of their school year.

It was a rough year. One day, after breaking up a fight, he put his arm around one of the brawling students, attempting to calm the boy. The youth threw off his arm, saying, "Get away from me, maricon [homosexual]!" Within hours, students across the campus were calling him Mr. Maricon.

Menjares stepped up his efforts to win over the students. He invited a guest speaker to his class, an actor friend who had appeared in movies with Sylvester Stallone. The talk was a hit, and Menjares went from Mr. Maricon to Mr. Friend of Movie Stars.

That year he won the respect of his students and was ready to take on more challenges. He invited other teachers to send their problem students to his class for the last two weeks of school.

Menjares was hooked. That summer, the young substitute received an emergency teaching credential from the Los Angeles Unified School District. For the next seven years, Menjares taught full time, seeking out the toughest kids at some of the district's toughest schools.

A son of the barrio

Almost two decades later, Menjares, 49, is still striving to improve education for inner-city students. As a professor in the department of education at Biola University in La Mirada, California, he now trains future educators. He shares his story with college students, offering an insider's perspective as both a teacher and a native of the inner city.

Indeed, when Menjares looked into the teary eyes of those South El Monte students, he saw his reflection staring back at him. He knew firsthand the tough life they led. Menjares grew up in East Los Angeles and nearby Pico Rivera, areas infested with gangs and drugs. His father was killed in a fight years earlier.

By his middle-school years Menjares was bored, and it showed in his many C's and D's. He gave up studying for partying. He started drinking alcohol, then sniffing glue—anything to get a buzz.

He saw friends die from drug overdoses. The thought of death terrified him as a teenager. Menjares had heard plenty about hell but little about Jesus. A picture of Jesus hung in his mother's home, alongside pictures of the Virgin Mary, the Pope, and President Kennedy.

"I wasn't really sure what to believe or think," Menjares says. "I got very religious at certain times of the year. But it had no significant, life-changing effect on me."

During that decade of drugs and free love, there was another cultural phenomenon spreading across the country: the Jesus Movement. It made its way to Menjares's high school, and he was puzzled by talk of "getting saved," "being born again," and "having eternal life." One night, after being stirred by Charlton Heston's performance in The Ten Commandments, Menjares felt a deep need to talk to God.

"I vividly remember saying, 'God, I'm a Catholic, but I just don't have much hope. If there's any other way, make it known to me.' That was it," he says. "I longed for freedom from the bondage I was in. I'd lived so fast and so hard, I'd burned myself out. Now, I was wanting something more meaningful. I think it was the first time I'd ever prayed. I didn't even know it was a prayer."

A short time later, Menjares was invited to a street ministry called "Bible Rap," where he dedicated his life to the Lord. Out went the partying and drugs, and in came a longing to serve God. Menjares decided to apply to a Bible college. But first he had to compensate for those low high-school grades. He enrolled in classes at the local community college, thinking he could transfer to a Bible college in a semester or two. However, his first grade report revealed just how ill-prepared he was, and he was placed on academic probation.

That didn't stop him. He took some correspondence courses to brush up on basic skills, then enrolled again at the community college. That semester, he earned straight A's.

Menjares never intended to become a teacher. He began substitute teaching as a side job while earning a bachelor's degree at Southern California College (now Vanguard University), a Christian college in Costa Mesa, California. He hoped to become a minister, and was serving as an assistant pastor at his church.

The church's administrative duties were taking up much of his time, and he longed to teach the Bible. A member of his church, who knew about his passion for teaching, asked if he had ever considered a career as a schoolteacher.

While working in the Los Angeles school district, Menjares earned his teaching credentials, then a master's degree. That opened the door to Ph.D. studies at the University of Southern California, and his position at Biola University. Since Menjares joined the Biola faculty, six graduates have received Teacher of the Year awards from their schools or districts, the majority in low-income areas.

Teaching future teachers

Even as many college students pursue a career in education, Menjares is concerned by one trend: The majority of teaching candidates seek positions in suburban schools.

"I think new teachers tend to view the inner-city or urban schools as harder work. Suburban kids are perceived as more willing to learn, with more supportive parents," Menjares says. "The perception is that all middle-class suburban kids are the same, so it's easier to teach to them. Of course, teachers find out the hard way that's not the case."

When he talks to college students, he doesn't sugarcoat his stories. But he's quick to dispel myths about working-class communities and to emphasize the success stories of inner-city kids who went on to college and impressive careers. He challenges college students to think about transforming young lives.

Menjares knows the potential within every student. "I had an experience at the end of my middle school teaching career back in 1994," he says. "I received an invitation to attend the high school graduation of one of my former students. This student was quiet, and honestly, I hardly remembered him, but evidently he remembered me. I met up with him and his buddies after the ceremony, and these young men began sharing with me how they had met recently to talk about their school days and the teachers they had. In their conversation they realized that they had all had me as a teacher and were reflecting on the impact I had on them. They thanked me for encouraging them to stay in school, go to college, and live productive and clean lives. It blew me away. I've never forgotten their words about the difference I had made in their lives."

While student success begins with teachers, it certainly doesn't end there. Schools need support from their communities, and there are many ways for the average person to help a school. Most schools have opportunities to volunteer before, during, and after school, and many would love help with campus upkeep, such as graffiti removal, gardening, and replacing or repairing broken equipment. Community members also can affect education by attending school board meetings, joining parent councils, or speaking with and writing to administrators.

Menjares and his wife, Virginia, have one grown daughter, Nicole, and recently celebrated the arrival of their first grandchild. Through the work he's doing now, he's hoping to enhance the future of public education and perhaps create better schools for his grandkids—and their kids.

"One of the most important things Christians can do is pray," Menjares says. "Paul exhorted Timothy to request, pray, intercede, and give thanks for everyone, but especially for kings and those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-3). Public schools, and those who run them, are in authority.

"We have entrusted the education of our young people to teachers, administrators, school board members, and support staff. They need our prayers and thanks on a daily basis," he says. "Can't get involved directly? Then pray. I believe the average person can have a significant impact on the quality of education and the lives of those in schools by simply remembering to pray."

Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.
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Originally published August 13, 2012.