The Remnants of Labels

Reynaldo Cordova
Apr 11 · 13 min read

You’re not even worth 50 bucks.

Perhaps I can blame my guidance counselor from Spring High School for planting a seed in my mind that I could handle such a move to Vanderbilt University. She didn’t know my family history, nor my work ethic, which up until that point in school was a study in convenience and an inconsistent motivation. I loved the classes I loved, from journalism and being involved in the school newspaper, and just did enough in the classes I didn’t.

In Pre-Cal, I skipped the first 10–15 minutes of class each morning reading the sports page of the Houston Chronicle instead of focusing on the nightly homework review. I rarely needed help, and it was always the last few problems on a 60 problem page. It wasn’t worth my time. I had columns to read and box scores to comb through. I had hoped one day that my stories would grace the pages of the Chronicle, and indeed when my ex-football coach that season said, “What do you think this is, the Houston Chronicle?” before admonishing my weekly column about how bad of a team we were, well, I took it not as a stinging rebuke but a badge of honor for a budding writer.

I visited Sam Houston College which would have been a safer choice for someone who had only been out of the state of Texas a few times. There was community college too, but whenever the subject of attending North Harris (it’s called Lone Star College now, which sounds even cheesier) came up, it felt like I wasn’t reaching my fullpotential. Most of my friends were going somewhere — UT, TAMU — and everyone who was stuck going to community college were either poor or didn’t have much academic potential. We all would laugh when we said we would attend North Harris, the I’m-a-loser laugh that protects us from criticism.

Other credible journalism schools were Columbia. My freshman year, I was on the newspaper team at Nimitz High School, and our editor had been accepted there. His grades were much better than mine, and he coupled with his hearing impairment (I know this was not a reason for his acceptance as much as him being white. I’ve since matured from this type of thinking) had a story and a future. No way I was getting in.

The application for Vanderbilt was easy enough, all up until noticing there was an application fee. 50 bucks. I didn’t have a job all through school, not because I didn’t want to, but my parents were more like, “Your job is school.” When I approached my mom she ridiculed my poor study habits and took my unkempt room to interpret how I would live in a dorm.

You’re not even worth 50 bucks.

Those are the defeats that you carry. Further along on my destination to community college, I had applied to St. Thomas University. My mom undoubtedly helped me with this cause, as I received glowing letters of recommendation from our priest. When I was notified I had been accepted, I felt that I could finally shred some of the loser label that had been affixed to my lapel, like one of those stickers you get when you vote. Recently I had forgotten to remove one such voting sticker, washed the shirt and had noticed that the residue of the sticker had still remained. No matter how many times I had washed the shirt, scrubbed the fragmented and cracked stain with specialty soap purchased from Hobby Lobby, you could still see the remnants of that sticker. Loser. No way were my grades or test scores high enough for a scholarship and no way my family was poor enough to receive a grant.

Why do we cling to our failures? I cannot say that the rejections of my life were the stories of legend, or that they made me different from anyone else. Countless individuals had not made their school’s baseball teams. Many of us have played for the B team, the junior varsity. Just good enough to be mediocre. My stepdad had made a surprise visit at high school once to witness me practice, shocked to see me struggling with wind sprints, dogging it while praying that my chin splints wouldn't burst through my legs like an alien out of John Hurt’s abdomen. Afterwards he chewed me out for not having the desire that he once had — all district awards in both football and baseball, a scholarship to Pan Am — and for being an embarrassment. The man who I didn’t ask to come into my life, who took my food and my mom — the motif of mind scars that I had remembered one day about my new reality as a young child — and called me “hook nose” all through elementary was degrading my effort as both an athlete and an individual.

You’re not even worth 50 bucks. You’re not even worth my time. Just quit.

I still watch this every year. I use mannerisms and sayings from this film in my classroom and every time I see it, my body purges itself of tears.

So when I sprained my MCL my junior season, I did quit. Quitting was easy. I had quit football my freshman year at Nimitz, and was all but called a worthless POS by my coach, so quitting at Spring wasn’t anything remotely difficult. After losses, my teammates would cry and walk off the field as if the points on the scoreboard mattered. I just anted to know what everyone was doing for dinner. I even got chewed out once coming out of a theater after watching Stand and Deliver. Did I have the ganas, the will, the desire, like Edward James Olmos was asking of his fictional students?

I can’t say I had much success with anything outside of writing in those high school years. I didn’t have a steady girlfriend, which wouldn’t have been much of a big deal had I not been raised Hispanic alongside 4 uncles who reminded you not so much with words but with habits that if I hadn’t had the ultimate conquest of a young girl’s womanhood that I was either gay or becoming the one thing I was hunting. The closest thing I got to that was Becky Chavez. She was a senior when I met her. Me, a freshman. We’d meet at her condo down the street and after a joke or two, moved onto her couch where I fondled my way through manhood. She had a boyfriend, some chulo looking dude who undoubtedly knew something was amiss when he’d catch me walking out of her beautician classes. Oftentimes, my over-the-clothes hand cupping of her breasts was interrupted by his knock at the door, and I was quickly ushered through the back unseen.

You’re not even worth mentioning. You’re not worth the fight.

No wonder my senior year I didn’t notice that my homecoming date, Lori Hagen, had brought along another date within our large party. I didn’t notice the looks she had given him all night or caught the awkwardness of her situation, caught between a guy she wanted and a guy she settled for. After dinner, I sat in the back seat of her best friend’s car, awaiting her and her better date to finish whatever was going on behind the tinted windows of his car. No matter how much you scrub at that sticker, it just doesn’t come off. It would have been better to strip the shirt entirely. Maybe your shirt has hole but hey, you can still wear it.

I didn’t always have rejection. After marrying and relocating to Ohio in order to finish school — North Harris gave me a 2 year degree after all my consternation — I received a minority scholarship from Ohio University that all but fell into my lap. Finally, something given for just being me — a not-bad student with brown skin and a Hispanic surname.

When I graduated college, before my first official interview, I received a job offer from the Spanish Immersion school over the phone based on my name alone. I had to kindly decline because while my name is perfectly authentic, the Spanish I butcher isn’t. It’s like Taco Bell Spanish. But I was hired shortly thereafter, at Broadleigh Elementary, and little did I know that the labels I wore would carry into my classroom habits and expectations. I had a common bond with these kids. Rough neighborhood — many came from the now defunct Woodland Meadows Apartment complex that had been coined “Uzi Alley” — low income, futures indeterminate. I seasoned my experience with bravado and the self-assurance that I could make a difference. I think I taught in order to get fired, or very close to. I surely taught so that everyone around me would be burned from just standing in my presence.

I switched schools about 6 years later. Many of my colleagues had found better jobs outside of the district and some had quit teaching altogether. (Ironic that one of my friends left teaching to run a sanctuary for lost and abused animals.)I was hired at my wife’s school, one of the rare husband and wife teaching combos in the district, and my expectations of being a master teacher were soon brought down to earth with my first classroom.

Tell me, is it because I’m your husband that no one is telling me the truth? Maybe they are afraid to tell you that I’m a terrible teacher so they won’t hurt your feelings.

I questioned many of my methods and values. Despite being told that my particular classroom had problematic kids that had terrorized teachers there since kindergarten, that old sticker label came roaring back with a vengeance. Maybe I’ve been a terrible teacher this entire time, but because my previous school was such a hell hole, no one could see it. I went from teaching in an old building with no A/C, where my room would routinely smell like the spoiled chocolate milk from the dumpster that wafted in from open windows, where the hallway tiles had been ground to nothing more than dirt and stains, to an immaculate new building. Perhaps I was receiving a safety net from my wife’s reputation, saved only because of my last name.

One of my favorite books as a teacher. I do miss the lessons it provided and for the unclean story of slavery in America.

Eventually things evened out. I had my challenges but I met each one head on. I taught 4th grade, 4th and 5th grade split classes and finally 5th. I went through several teaching partners, none I could say that I felt in total collaboration like I had at Broadleigh, and it cemented this ideal that I was better off alone. I taught big themes that I felt no one else was willing to do. We read The Giver, To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote essays and presented reenactments of our favorite book scenes from Day of Tears.

I taught my students Hand-on Equations even though algebra was not a 5th grade standard at the time. I was working towards an ultimate goal. I was preparing them for middle school. My school doesn’t have a clear and concise discipline plan, no school have I taught in has really quite had one, so I borrowed and stripped down character building lessons from Sunday school and molded them to fit what I wanted to see from my students. RUBIOSO (R u blending in or standing out?) and CHAMPS (Character, Honesty, Attitude, Motivation, Perseverance and Success) became our acronyms. Students who met the criteria of an excellent example wore read shirts that said, “Keep Calm and Be a CHAMP,” and were excluded from school-wide group punishments (I hate group punishments. When an entire grade has to owe recess for something trivial it just triggers something inside of me pretty wicked. That’s one of the reasons for the shirts, to fight the oppressive administration!).

Years later, I received word that the middle school math teachers recognized students from Mr. C’s room. Former students would return to wrangle their younger siblings for pickup and tell me, “We had to read The Giver again but yours was funner.”

Three years ago, I was sent from 5th grade to 2nd. I took the news hard. I took it as a demotion. I wasn’t able to hear the explanation. All I heard was test scores and criticisms of my classroom management. I figured my principal wanted me gone. That’s what they do to teachers who they want out, ship them to lower or higher grades, and watch them squirm. And the self-worth that I thought I had wrestled down to a stub came roaring back.

You aren’t worth it. You weren’t worth it then and you’re surely not worth it now.

There’s nothing quite like motivational fear. This is the fear that all teachers have at some point. We have nightmares that we will lose control of our classrooms, or that we will get observed on the day we finally lose it or that Friday just before Spring Break when we finally decided to pop in a movie. I had fear of little ones. Fifth graders have their own unique charm. They are sarcastic, they get your jokes, they are just malleable enough to lead. Every time I’d see little ones in the hall, twisting into their own tornadoes, falling on the ground for no apparent reason, I said things like, “Bless your heart” to their teachers which was my way of saying, “Hell no, I couldn’t do your job.” All that summer before my first second grade class, I purchased books for my library and sought advice. In 5th grade, even a struggling reader could be helped to bypass the system. You taught them where to read, how to beat the test (in hindsight, the proliferation of testing culture is killing teaching one test at a time) and how to answer questions successfully. In second, I would be met with kids who would be barely above kindergarten level. How do I even teach phonics anyway?

Fear coupled with my need to control my environment (please tell me other teachers do this as well), prevented me from seeing the greatness my 2nd graders. While there were tantrums to be had and plenty of thumbs to be suckled, I had 27–30 sponges a year. These were kids that cried because I wouldn’t spell words for them — eventually I made an unwritten rule to not ever spell one syllable words for them — or cried when they couldn’t find a paper. My 5th graders never seemed to care. Can’t spell a word, screw it I just won’t even write anything. Can’t find a paper, screw it, I’ll just get another one and cram it into my already cluttered desk.

That fear prevented me from instilling some of those same character building lessons with my students. I was worried each day about what they could or could not handle. How independent can a second grader with barely a 1st grade reading level really be? I frequently used the word babyfied, a term to mean that if Mr. C had to come over and do everything for you, you might as well go back to being a kindergarten baby. I didn’t love my job much anymore. While I could create differentiated learning groups and hands-on lessons on the fly, it didn’t feel very satisfying. Ultimately after a few years, I began to grasp hold of the curriculum demands and set sight on creating 3rd grade ready students. In Ohio, the 3rd grade guarantee looms over the heads of children and preys on their fear of passing. No one is ever retained anymore like they were in my day. In Texas, we had a kid who was a lifer in 5th grade, who was always picked first for kickball but last to popcorn read. He had a budding mustache while we were barely realizing our bodies were changing, hiding bus ride boners and not realizing how bad we smelled because we never used deodorant. Not anymore. But the fear we had ingrained in their parents’ generation was enough to garner the same question at year’s end. Did I pass?

Am I worth it? Am I good enough to pass? That’s what they are really asking. No wonder they cried when they couldn’t spell a word correctly.

Perhaps this is why I find myself with the urge to move on. I recently drove to a nearby Academy school for one of my son’s baseball games. One of those schools where the grounds have no signs of weeds and dandelions are met with a killer’s enthusiasm to be eradicated. Every kid wears a uniform and the school probably has some kind of motto that is recited each morning after the Pledge of Allegiance. I wondered what it would be like to teach at a place like this. What would be my demands? What would be the challenges? But then, fear happens.

You think you could work at a place like this? At your age? You must be fooling yourself. What would you do with a classroom full of kids who can actually read on grade level? What’s gonna happen when every parent makes an appointment during conferences? What a loser!

I surveyed their website. Read their mantras, and viewed the profiles of some of the teachers. Sure enough, guess what grade they have an offering for? Second grade. I haven’t needed a reason for a résumé since coming out of college, but I soon began to dust off the skills and attributes I’d have to offer.

I’ve begun looking at other schools too. Perhaps I just need a change of scenery, whether that’s in the district or out. I’ve always stayed away from looking elsewhere because of that fear of the unknown, and because that little boy who who was rejected years ago still likes to walk alongside my life. He’s a good friend to have around at times. He’s grown into my drinking buddy, my shoulder to cry on, my codependent therapist.

I want to find a place where big ideas matter more than a test score. Perhaps I’m just fooling myself. I can hear the laughter coming from a place deep inside me. When I questioned whether or not I wanted to come back to my school, my wife said, “They’re gonna put you in the worst place.” Fear has become so prevalent that I believe he isn’t just my drinking buddy but he’s having an affair with my wife.

Sometime soon I will edit and revise my cover letter and credentials. While I have experience, I also come with baggage. I know that rejection is a true and realistic outcome. I might not receive a phone call or a response from some, maybe a courtesy no-thanks written on a business card in the mail like I used to get from submitting poetry to literary magazines. Perhaps some committe will judge my merits behinds closed doors like Lori Hagen did that night of Homecoming. One thing for certain is wherever I end up, I’m going back to my Edward James Olmos/Mr. Escalante days, when we kept calm because we were CHAMPS and I didn’t worry so much about what I cannot control. I will always have kids who fall for no apparent reason, parents who fail to make an parent-teacher conference appointment or a principal who does not see my worth.

And that dried on sticker? I don’t wear that shirt anymore. You can still see a faded moon remnant of its former existence. Instead of salvaging the shirt, I threw it away. Old labels can be discarded. We wear a new shirt each and everyday, and it’s a choice to step into the confidence we have been given through our very souls. Step forward with confidence. Sounds like it would make a great slogan, and an even better lesson for my little ones.

Reynaldo Cordova

Written by

Christian, husband, father, teacher, blogger. Sports enthusiast and avid reader.

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