(One reason that I started to blog was to find out if I would like to write and to see if I could write. One of my very early posts was about a person who is very important in my life. Since I first posted that story, I have spent some time editing it, adding to it, and putting more of myself into the story. This is the final version of of that story. I still don’t know the answer to the would and could questions, but I continue to explore.)
The Class of ’64
He was not a physically imposing man, or one to demand the spotlight. His daily wardrobe was understated, consisting of earth-toned clothes, well-worn shoes, and a cardigan sweater. Calm and soft spoken, he had full, black hair and a darker complexion. But most of all, I remember his smile, a wry smile seeming to suggest that he knew something the rest of us did not. Some of his other physical characteristics have faded from my immediate memory; after all, the last time I saw him, The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” was Billboard’s number one song. Yet I still feel his spirit, as if he were standing right in front of me in room 21 at Hennessy Elementary School in Grass Valley, California. His name was Albert Ali.
I met Mr. Ali when I was ten years old and beginning the sixth grade, probably the youngest in my class. Until that point, my experience with formal education had not been positive. I struggled, and I mean really struggled, especially with the most important of the citizenship qualities categorized on the left side of my report card: “Quiet and does not disturb others.” No, that was never me. My classmates sat properly at their desks, aligned neatly in rows, like everything else in our classrooms, where we were apparently being trained to be soldiers or factory workers. But my young mind didn’t align neatly with anything. What I loved was socializing.
As a four-year-old in kindergarten, my desire to socialize got me in big trouble. One day, when I was failing miserably at being “quiet and not disturbing others,” my teacher decided to remove me from all temptation by placing me in solitary confinement—in a dark coat closet. Only a faint light came in where the door refused to touch the floor. I was quite sad, and as often happens with sad situations, it got worse. My teacher forgot about me. I spent the entire school day locked up, listening to the others sing songs, eat cookies, and take naps. At the end of the day, after all the other children had left, along with all the school buses, my warden retrieved her coat to go home. There, in the dark corner, squinting his eyes from the sudden bright light, was a quietly sobbing little boy. Amazingly, my very own Shawshank Redemption experience did not break my social spirit. For most of my early years in school, I continued to receive “Needs Improvement” marks on my citizenship skills. (My academic marks weren’t very “good” either.)
My first grade teacher was a welcome change after the kindergarten jailer, but then my luck turned bad again. For the next four years, I was stuck with teachers who were close to earning their pensions and didn’t seem to have patience for little boys with poor penmanship, boys who couldn’t wait to get back on the playground for recess and lunch. But my troubles weren’t limited to poor teachers. I was a skinny kid who tended to get sick a lot. My ears were large, and they didn’t lie next to my head in a socially acceptable manner. Some classmates teased me, calling me “Dumbo,” a popular movie character at the time. (Years later, when I chose to wear my hair short, some “friends” would try to nickname me Yoda.). Fist fights were common, and about the only way to stand up to bullying—except they didn’t call it bullying back then. It was “boys will be boys.” Hennessy Elementary was no Montessori heaven.
The annual Valentine’s Day card exchange was always a good barometer of where you stood in the classroom’s pecking order, especially with the girls. Kids dropped the best cards in the brown paper bags that sat on the desks of the most popular students. When I reviewed my own bag, it usually contained cards with generic sayings, like “Have a Great Day,” which failed entirely in comparison to “You and I Go Sweet Together!”
It didn’t take long for me to decide that I hated school. I especially dreaded getting report cards, as my father was becoming increasingly frustrated with my citizenship marks and grades. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut long enough to learn anything—at least, that was how Dad interpreted it, and he didn’t need to read between the lines to reach that conclusion; it was essentially what my teacher’s comments always said. Each year, I worried that my final report card would read, “He’s not ready for the next grade level, but he is really good at playing games that involve a ball.”
By the end of fifth grade, after so many years of academic and social failures, I was no longer curious or even hopeful, in school or out. I was fearful, considered myself ugly and stupid, and I had the attention span of a hummingbird. Something else happened that tanked my self-esteem even further during this time; I was introduced to the issues of race. I had begun to notice that my skin was a bit darker than most of the other children’s, especially during the warmer weather. No African-American children lived in Grass Valley, although we had a few Italian families, and one kid in my class had a Filipino mother. So I was used to watching most of my classmates turn red in the sun. Now, though, I became aware that my own skin was getting darker and darker as the days grew warmer. One day, on the playground, one of the kids called me the N-word, a term used commonly (by certain people) in that rural community. It bothered me enough that I went home and told my father about it.
Dad was not one for subtlety when it came to emotional issues. He tended to deal with them head-on and quickly, something like a car wreck. This time was no different.
“Your mother’s not your mother,” he told me, going on to reveal that my “real” mother lived somewhere else now, but had grown up in Yosemite National Park with her grandmother, who was an Indian. Then, in what I recognize now as ignorance, rather than ill-will, he used the language of the day to tell me what I was: a “Digger Indian.” In that brief car wreck of a conversation I went from being a “nigger” to a “Digger” and to understanding that the woman I had been calling “Mom” my whole life was no relation–nor were my brothers and sisters fully participating with me in the same gene pool.
As the last day of fifth grade approached, my classmates had only one big question: Who would be lucky enough to get Mr. Ali next year for sixth grade? I joined these conversations, but without much optimism. By this point, my emotional well-being was about as good as my citizenship marks. Why should I expect anything about school to change for me? My analysis, however, was flawed. Without my knowledge, Mr. Ali had been watching me and others like me – energetic boys who liked to play sports.
During the last period on the last day of fifth grade, we were allowed to go look at the teachers’ rosters for next year that were posted outside of their classrooms. I desperately wanted to be in Mr. Ali’s sixth grade class, but I didn’t run to see who my teacher would be like the other kids did …until I heard one of the students say to me, “Hey, you’re in Mr. Ali’s class.” I know it’s a cliché, but I truly couldn’t believe my eyes. This could not be so. School did not like me. I just stared at my name because I half expected it to disappear off the paper. It didn’t and all summer long, I looked forward to school beginning. The night before the new school year began, I laid out my new J.C. Penney’s denim jeans, a bright white tee shirt, and brand spankin’ new Converse high-top tennis shoes with laces done the cool way – going over the top of the eyelets, not underneath. I wanted to make the best impression possible on my new teacher.
Albert Ali (pronounced Al-Lie, not Ah-Lee) was a small town hero in Grass Valley, California. His father had migrated here from Albania and his mother from Mexico, and neither spoke much English. Of course, I didn’t know those details then; what I knew about him was what the whole school knew: his past as a local sports legend. Although short in stature, he had been a standout high school athlete in football, basketball, and baseball. With interest from the Chicago White Sox, he signed a professional baseball contract with the Great Falls Selectrics in Montana, a team in the historic Pioneer League. In his first professional game he held his opponent scoreless, pitching a shutout. He was off to a promising start, winning four games.
Then he started having trouble, first with his swollen left knee, then both ankles, and finally his other knee. Mr. Ali’s promising pitching career came to an abrupt end at age nineteen, when he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. For the next three years, the best athlete to come out of Grass Valley, California couldn’t even dress himself.
Fortunately, a new “miracle” treatment offered by doctors at the University of California made it possible for Mr. Ali to walk again—in fact, within days of treatment. He found his way back to college, earning a teaching credential at Chico State, and then returned to his hometown to take up his post in a sixth grade class room at Hennessy Elementary. By the time I became his student, Mr. Ali was the husband of his high school sweetheart, Theodora, a Native American woman, and the father of two young daughters, Robin and Tammy.
But it wasn’t his personal life that interested me then; it was his impact in the classroom. Long before anyone at Hennessy Elementary had heard the words “diversity” and “inclusion,” Mr. Ali embodied those ideals. I had already experienced my community’s limited views on race, typical then for a small town in northern California that lacked much ethnic diversity. Yet people here fully embraced Albert Ali as their collective son. Wherever he went, his darker complexion was never remarked upon; instead, people greeted him with firm handshakes and warm smiles, and often their arm on his shoulder. The racial attitudes evaporated when Albert Ali was in the room or on the field.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Mr. Ali’s reputation as our school’s favorite teacher was entirely deserved. One day, early in the school year, he noticed that I was not, as they now say, “on task,” during the time assigned to work on math problems in class.
“Gary, come up here,” Mr. Ali said, pulling a chair next to his in the front of the classroom. Then, going desk by desk, he asked each student to answer a particular math problem. I had no answers to share with my classmates and dreaded my question, which soon came. “Gary, what is the answer to number thirty-three?”
The old feelings of being an academic screw up quickly rushed back into my mind. But then, ever so slightly, in a gesture noticeable only to me, Mr. Ali slid his left index finger to the answer in his teacher’s manual. I took the cue and read the correct answer.
“Good, yes, that is correct,” Mr. Ali replied.
Mr. Ali, it seemed, wanted me to succeed. For the very first time, I seriously considered the possibility that all those rules about perfect handwriting, perfect spelling, perfect book covers made from brown paper lunch bags—which required a strong aptitude for the fine arts—and of course, the ultimate rule, Citizenship, might not be written in stone.
But Mr. Ali’s influence extended beyond the classroom. Despite the dramatic changes that had transformed him from a professional athlete to an elementary school teacher, Mr. Ali’s passion for sports was never compromised, as I soon learned. He made sure that students like me—kids who loved playing games with balls—were enrolled in his class. He took ball games very seriously, spending countless hours coaching children in afterschool sports, and he had the ability to connect with each of us. Sometimes, after practice, Mr. Ali would give me a ride home in his old Willy’s Jeep, a World War II version—no top, no radio, doors that rattled. I felt like the most important person on earth, alone with Mr. Ali in his Jeep. I don’t remember talking very much on those rides, but I remember how my chest puffed up and filled with pride to be riding with my teacher, all by myself. Who cared about the best Valentine’s Day card? I had Mr. Ali.
My academic problems weren’t solved immediately, but something was indeed changing. I didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Ali. Nobody wanted to. And it wasn’t just the boys who adored him. I think he purposely enrolled in his class some girls who also had difficulty being “quiet and not disturbing others,” girls who today might receive a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder. Actually, I don’t think the disorder was on their end. My classmates and I had some crazy teachers at Hennessy Elementary, like the one who locked me up in kindergarten. The girls I remember were not the types to quietly accept solitary confinement in a coat closet. They spoke their minds—constantly. Yet they, too, were putty in the hands of our master teacher, a man who could figure out a way to reach and inspire every kid he taught. He said, “Jump,” and we said, “How high?” Long before the term “classroom management” was discussed in teacher education programs, Mr. Ali knew how to manage a classroom.
Despite his kindness, Mr. Ali was no pushover when it came to our wayward behavior. He could be a tough disciplinarian. This was toward the end of the era when corporal punishment was viewed as an appropriate tool in California, a tactic for shaping young minds, while also reshaping their butts. His enforcement tool of choice was the one favored by everyone with security clearance to the teacher’s lounge: a wooden paddle drilled with holes. The holes helped to reduce wind friction, which might slow the speed of the paddle as it bore down on its target. (Memories triggered by scientific principals like this contributed to my dislike of physics in college.) Unlike some of his colleagues, Mr. Ali was slow to use this aerodynamic technology on his students. I can remember only one time when I saw him use it—well, not actually saw it—felt it.
I was on the schoolyard basketball court, in the middle of a great struggle with another team, as Mr. Ali sat quietly on the sidelines coaching us. For some reason, most likely because I had seen one of my favorite professional athletes do it, I decided to spit on the blacktop court while playing in the game. At the time, it felt like a manly thing to do, an expression of my developing alpha maleness. Mr. Ali saw it differently; I had disrespected the honorable court of competition. He made it clear to me that I would have to pay a price for my actions. I remember thinking that I had seen other students do similar acts without much consequence. But Mr. Ali had a different standard for his kids. He poured his soul into us, and he wasn’t going to stand by and let the slippery values of a changing world interfere with our development into “good” people. I had to bend over and…whap. For some reason that I can’t explain, I wasn’t embarrassed, nor did I feel separated from Mr. Ali or my other teammates. I had done something wrong, and I held my nose and I took my medicine. I never again spit on any surface where a game was played.
Sixth grade, which I had so dreaded, started going very well for me. I rarely missed school any longer, because Mr. Ali’s classroom was my favorite place to be in the whole world. He had managed to remove the fear of failure from me, and as a result, I started getting interested in the academic subjects, too. I began spending more time on my homework and actually started becoming a good citizen of the classroom. In some mysterious way that I attribute solely to who he was as a person, Mr. Ali had created what now is commonly called a “learning community.”
For the first time in years, I became joyful, and never more so than when that wonderful wandering minstrel, Mrs. Paye, our music teacher, came to our class for our weekly music lessons. She had full buy-in from me. Whatever she wanted us to sing, I would sing it loud and proud. (As a matter of fact, on several occasions she did mention how loud I was. I couldn’t help it; I was happy.) Mr. Ali also appointed me to a very prestigious unit, the school crossing guards. Not only did I get to wear a bright yellow uniform, but I also got out of class early in order to ensure the safety of my fellow classmates. Nobody crossed that street until I said it was safe to do so. Trust me, you had to be something really special to become a member of that unit. In my mind and heart, it was comparable to being a Navy Seal.
I was given another prestigious assignment from Mr. Ali, too. Whenever the small kids lost a ball in Wolf Creek, which ran next to our playground, I was one of those selected to go retrieve it. One day, trying to grab a ball, my retrieval partner Jerry and I accidentally fell in the creek. It was winter and cold, and we were soaked. Jerry and I had to stand next to the radiator furnace in our classroom for most of the day in order to dry our wet clothes. Mr. Ali was not happy with us. He made it very clear that we should have put a board across the creek to support us and then reached down to get the ball. “Ah, pure genius,” I thought.
The playground god soon smiled upon Jerry and I again, presenting us with an opportunity for redemption. Near the end of the same day, another emergency request came in, this time to save a red rubber kickball. Mr. Ali, looked at us, in our freshly dried clothes. “You two, go get that ball, and do it right this time,” he instructed.
How could you not love a man who had that type of faith in you?
“Yes, sir, we’ll get that ball!”
We took the master’s advice and put a board across the narrow creek. Then we both ventured out onto the board, because neither of us wanted to miss this kind of excitement. Unfortunately, the board broke. Once again, Jerry and I were both soaking wet as we returned to our classroom—this time with a red rubber kickball in hand. It was one of the few times that I saw Mr. Ali’s dark brown eyes open wide—very wide.
In October, Mr. Ali brought his transistor radio to school, and we quietly worked on our assignments while listening to the powerful New York Yankees play the Saint Louis Cardinals. Baseball fans know that this Series was a major tipping point for Major League Baseball. The Yankees had dominated the sport with a team of traditional white players, while the Cardinals built a more diverse team, consisting of very talented Hispanic (the term of the day) and black players. You could have heard a Number Two pencil drop as we listened to the first two games, on a Wednesday and Thursday during class, and then three more games the following week, including Bob Gibson’s legendary Game Seven, when he pitched with just two days of rest. During those two weeks, my classmates and I listened to over fifteen hours of baseball, and nobody made a peep; we just silently did our school work. Even our sacred lunch period was ignored; we chose to stay by Mr. Ali’s side instead, listening to every pitch, every hit, and every play. We didn’t cheer, but exchanged knowing glances, like old grizzled veterans who understood the nuances of the grand American pastime—just like Mr. Ali. (In reality, the scene probably looked more like Snow White and the thirty-three dwarfs.) I was never happier, nor ever would be, in an educational setting.
I continued playing all the sports, and in baseball I developed into one of the better players. My circle of friends rapidly expanded, and I would spend weekends with them on the schoolyard, playing whatever sport was in session. Occasionally, Mr. Ali would even stop by to see how the games were going. On Monday mornings, he always wanted the details, especially the score. He did not like to hear that our class had lost a game, any game, and he made his expectations known with a tight-lipped, disapproving shake of his head. The competitive fire which had propelled him to a professional baseball contract still burned in his belly. Unbeknownst to any of us, however, something else was also burning in our beloved teacher.
Late in 1964, it was Mr. Ali who was missing school. The miracle treatments for his rheumatoid arthritis had involved cortisone, a drug whose devastating side effects were unknown at that time. At first, Mr. Ali was absent just a day here or there, then for a week at a time. We didn’t know it, but he needed a stomach operation for an ulcer caused by his arthritis treatment. In his compromised condition, his arthritis became worse.
During Mr. Ali’s absences, our class had many different substitute teachers, and for the most part we behaved; we knew Mr. Ali would be back soon, and we didn’t want to disappoint him. However, Mr. Ali was soon missing so much school that we were assigned a permanent substitute teacher. As a class, we were not kind to her. The “good” kids were still well behaved, but the rest of us, the borderline (and often over the border) outlaws, reverted to our old behavior. I didn’t singing as loud or enthusiastically for dear Mrs. Paye. Schoolwork became the same chore it used to be. Being a school crossing guard wasn’t as prestigious now that Mr. Ali wasn’t here to nod in approval as I donned my yellow uniform, and I no longer saved drowning red rubber balls from Wolf Creek.
To be fair, nobody could have replaced Mr. Ali. He brought his entire spirit to the task of teaching children. I realize now that all his unique experiences contributed to that endeavor: his childhood as the son of two immigrants, his athletic successes and heartbreaks, the ethics regarding honor instilled in him by his family and our small town, his deep wisdom into what makes children “tick,” and his soulful joy in the rhymes and rhythms of life. These things could not be replicated. Our entire class had lost its spiritual guru and along with it, our spirit. Our long-term substitute teacher used the “tried and true” approach to elementary school education: rigid and depersonalized instruction. It failed, miserably. I was miserable, too.
By spring, it was time for Mrs. Paye’s annual musical performance. That year, Disney’s “Mary Poppins” was a big hit, and Mrs. Paye chose a song from the film for us to perform, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Based upon my prior enthusiasm for singing, Mrs. Paye placed me at the center of the top row of our choir, a highly visible position. The whole world, or at least, all the parents jammed into the small gym/auditorium, would see how much I loved singing. Perhaps I would even drive the performance of others to new heights.
It was a bad strategy. My desire to learn the words of the song was nil. I spent my energy and time nailing the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but didn’t bother learning the rest of the lyrics. I had a plan for the performance, though. I would lip sync the rest of the words, and I would do it convincingly, summoning my early energy for singing and pouring myself into my voiceless performance. When it was time to perform, I really did nail “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but my strategy was unsuccessful for the rest of the song. I was “lipping” for sure, but I was not synced, simply guessing what the next lyrics might be, and guessing very wrong. I might as well have been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance—in fact, I might have been.
Poor Mrs. Paye looked horrified as she directed us through the song. I knew I was sinking, so I reverted to my usual tactic whenever my actions caused a problem: I doubled down, putting even more of myself into the lip syncing effort. Perhaps with more energy, I could sell this thing. (Imagine the most desperate salesperson you’ve ever met, multiplied by about a thousand.)
By the end of the—my—performance, Mrs. Paye looked distraught. I knew I had blown it, and there might be hell to pay, even from kind Mrs. Paye. But before I could worry too much about my fate, everyone spontaneously ran off the stage. My first thought was that my classmates were trying to get as far away from me as possible, in order to avoid becoming collateral damage from Mrs. Paye’s wrath. (In honesty, Mrs. Paye, a very kind person, was not capable of wrath.)
Then I heard someone say, “Mr. Ali is here!” In an instant, I understood the sudden departure of the choir.
I couldn’t see him, even from the empty top row on the stage, so I made my way down, my glance alternating from each next step to the crowd, searching for Mr. Ali. I should be able to see him, I thought, looking for the familiar figure I expected to see standing above all the children; and not only students from our class, but from all the classes, who had run to greet him. Once on the floor, I could only see a tight circle of students, with the “oppositional defiant” girls clustered in the inner ring. I edged nearer to the center of the circle, and when I was still about 15 feet away, something amazing happened: the crowd opened up, and I was looking directly into Mr. Ali’s dark brown eyes. They looked tired and weary, but he focused clearly on me, and I knew he was waiting for me to come to him.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t move.
My hero was now thin and worn, and he sat feebly in a wheelchair. I don’t know what expression my face wore, but it probably reflected the sadness I felt at seeing my teacher in such straits. We continued to stare at one another, and then, in another of his loving acts as a teacher, Mr. Ali broke his gaze from me, releasing me from the expectation of approaching him, as all the other children had done. I believe he understood that I couldn’t do it, that I was too stunned by what I had just realized: Mr. Ali wasn’t superhuman, after all.
No one had ever told me that my heroes were just human beings, especially the teaching kind of heroes. Nobody had told me that my athletic heroes might someday be unable to walk. To me, Mr. Ali had always been superhuman, fully capable of conquering whatever needed to be conquered, for the good of us all, but especially for me. I needed my hero to be standing, dribbling a basketball with one hand and driving his beat-up old Jeep with the other. That hero had saved me from teachers who locked up four-year-olds in dark closets and forgot about them. He had trusted me to help younger children cross the street, and to save the red rubber playground balls from Wolf Creek. Most importantly, my hero had made me happy enough to sing with my entire being.
Now, as I watched him continuing to talk and smile with the other, more emotionally mature children, I wanted to cry; no, I wanted to bawl my eyes out. I had no way of knowing then what effort it had taken Mr. Ali to get out of his bed and attend that springtime concert, motivated solely by his love for children. These days, I often hear people say that they have no regrets in life. I am not one of those people; I deeply regret not running up to Mr. Ali that evening. Even now as an old man, I wish I could re-live that day, run up to Mr. Ali, lay my head on his shoulder and tell him, “Thank you.”
I left the auditorium and never saw Mr. Ali again. His health continued to deteriorate, eventually necessitating long-term care in the county hospital, where his family faithfully ate dinner with him every night. In 1968, the community and his former teammates gathered at the new high school, where the gymnasium was being dedicated to him: the Albert Ali Gymnasium. The honoree was too disabled to attend, but a telephone line was hooked up to his hospital bed, so he could hear this public expression of love from those who regarded him so highly. Less than a year later, on April 28, 1969, Mr. Ali died at the age of forty.
The lessons that Albert Ali taught me have lasted for over six decades. I use those lessons nearly every day in my work with college students at Chico State, where he earned his teaching credential. Nearly all the young people I work with are first-generation students from low income backgrounds. Many of their parents are immigrants who don’t speak much English. I have a great fondness for all these students, but especially for the ones who have decided to become school teachers. I share with them the importance of caring enough about someone’s well-being to understand that it’s ok to break silly rules for them; I tell them that when it comes to people’s needs, the little things are really the big things; and that personal values should not be compromised—life has a way of eventually swatting you, if you do so. These values are deeply embedded in my perspective on people, life, social justice, and fairness; and most of all in my belief in the ability of one person to help many.
Of course, I am just one of Mr. Ali’s former students. By now, his lessons have undoubtedly been amplified by hundreds more of them. And I am certain that, to this day, they too still love Mr. Ali as much as I do. Many years after he died, I got together with some of my boyhood friends from Hennessy Elementary School. As we were recalling our sixth grade year, I said what I sincerely believed to be true: “Well, I was Mr. Ali’s favorite.” There was an immediate protest, as each of my friends instantly declared that he was Mr. Ali’s favorite. In truth, Mr. Ali had the rare ability to make each of us feel special, to make each of us feel like his favorite.
A few months ago, I entered the Albert Ali Gymnasium for the first time since 1971. My grandson was playing a high school basketball game there, on the visiting team. Before driving over to Grass Valley for the game, I told my grandson how much the gymnasium meant to me, and about the lessons I learned from its namesake: “Respect your opponent. Play with honor. Give it all you have at all times.” At the gym, I sat on the top row of the bleachers, watching my grandson scrambling and scrapping on the floor, despite being matched with a Grass Valley opponent of nearly six feet nine.
As I sat there, my sore back supported by a cold concrete wall, tears of pride and memory came to my eyes. I knew I had to write this story down. I had to write it for Mr. Ali’s daughters, Robin and Tammy, to provide perspective on their father’s last year in the classroom. And I had to write it for everyone in the profession of teaching, and for those preparing to enter it. To them I want to say this: There is no job you can do that is more worthy of your time on this earth (even when having to deal with students who need improvement in the area of “quiet and does not disturb others”). Finally, I had to write this story for myself, as a belated attempt to run up to Mr. Ali, lay my head on his shoulder, and tell him what I could not say on that day 52 years ago: “Thank you. I love you. And so does everyone else in the Class of ’64.”