Zarnow: Teacher embodies power of education
BY TERYL ZARNOW / For the Register
In Room 229 at Heroes Elementary School in Santa Ana, Ruben Acosta dismisses his class by rows: UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford and USC.
His students are just building reading vocabulary, but already he's planting a seed in their minds to think far beyond recess.
Santa Ana native, Ruben Acosta Vallejo teaches second grade at Heroes Elementary and recently completed a novel titled, “Dying Freedom: Insurrection 1810.” His book is a coming of age story set during the Mexican War and is geared towards young readers.
MACKENZIE REISS, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
“My greatest desire is to get them in college.”
Here in second grade, though, it's a feat to get all 30 students to sit still. At this age, shoelaces are a major issue. And if you give a girl a new pencil, well, she's going to want to sharpen it.
But with 16 years of teaching experience, Acosta maintains perfect control. He knows just how far ahead of himself to dribble as he drives the class downcourt toward literacy and fluency in English.
Acosta, 43, knows firsthand that education is a key to success. Yet even as he prepares students for where they're going, he wants them to understand where they've been.
• • •
As a teacher, role model and parent, Acosta has two stories to tell. The first, he lived. The second, he wrote.
Acosta was born in a small town in Mexico where he grew up in a barn. His mother brought him and four siblings to the U.S. when he was 12 to join his grandparents, who came in the 1970s.
Back then, work came before education.
Acosta's great-grandfather worked for a large landowner who told him: “Even if your kids learn to read and write, they will not get out of poverty. They will grow up lazy if they don't work.”
As a result, Acosta's grandfather learned only to write his name. He didn't send the six oldest of his 13 children to school, either.
Acosta arrived in Santa Ana with no English skills. At Willard Intermediate, not far from where he teaches today, he was one of hundreds.
“It was hard for me. … I got lost. … I just felt I was behind.”
To speak Spanish was to expose yourself as green.
He recalls a guidance counselor who heard his halting English and enrolled him in general math class. Three days later the teacher moved him to pre-Algebra.
But other teachers saw Acosta as a person.
“They noticed I was bright or disciplined, so they encouraged me.”
Ask about the teachers who mattered in his life and he names three: A teacher in Mexico who believed in him, his English-as-second-language teacher who encouraged him to read, and his math teacher at Santa Ana High School.
For him, the objective became education.
Acosta's uncles told him to drop out of school to support his mother. But his mother, who hadn't gone to school, told him to get an education.
She learned to read and write in the U.S., using Spanish and English – and she passed the citizenship exam in English.
Acosta graduated high school and Cal State Fullerton. Later, he earned a master's degree in cross-cultural education. His younger brothers graduated college as well.
As a teacher, he knows what his students can accomplish.
“The best thing is when they realize they can read. The world just opens up.”
• • •
The story Acosta wrote is a historical novel: “Dying Freedom: Insurrection 1810.”
Illustrated by his daughter, it's for high school readers set in Spanish Mexico just before the revolution. It includes all the requirements for a good potboiler: the orphaned hero, a beautiful but willful landowner's daughter, a villain, even a majestic white stallion.
The book includes historic events so readers will understand a different era and learn some history.
But it also honors Acosta's family. Characters are named for his grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather and all their wives.
His great-grandfather, for whom the hero is named, tended horses in Mexico. Acosta took his family to visit the hacienda where he worked.
“I wanted my own children to learn about their ancestors and how it was back then, so they will know about their background.”
He showed them the enormous wall that surrounded a property as large as Orange County. They climbed the stone wall their great-grandfather helped build.
“My grandfather used to tell me that his grandfather, his father and his uncles used to get up before the sun. He told me that one day there would be a time when we, as a people, would get up after the sun.”
In his book, Acosta writes:
“It was the first real battle for freedom. Freedom to choose, freedom to love, and freedom to realize dreams.”
He wants this generation of students to have dreams.
He is a peddler of aspirations, selling the notion of college to the parents of his students. Many of them know little about it themselves.
In his classroom, Acosta explains and entertains his way through the day's curriculum concepts: from odd and even numbers to comparing and contrasting. He twirls his marker like a baton and teases the class for being “scared” of story problems. They giggle.
As a grown-up, he still understands the supreme importance of getting points for your row. At 2:30 p.m., he dismisses the rows by the names of schools.
“Stanford?” says one boy. “That's where you want me to go?”
He tells the class if they can learn two languages, they can be part of two worlds.
When he speaks to school assemblies, introduced as an author, Acosta tells students:
“At one time I was sitting where you are sitting. I didn't speak English – and now I have … written a book. I'm here to tell you that you can do it. Set your goals and dreams and when you work at it, you can accomplish.”
Next year, he's thinking, maybe it's time to teach fourth grade. That curriculum includes California history – and Acosta says he could make that subject truly come alive.