Who knows if she merely wanted to bolster a young boy’s confidence, or whether she saw in Manuel Mendoza something he hadn’t yet recognized himself, but one day the principal of a small elementary school in central Mexico had an idea.
Would he help teach the younger students math? As would often happen in his academic career, Mendoza doubted himself, until he got an extra bit of encouragement, a reassuring nudge.
“I can’t do it,” he told the principal.
“Yes, you can.”
Looking back, he thinks they might have been first-graders, though it’s hard to remember now. But, as the principal suggested, he tried, and the little kids learned. “It started there,” he recalls. “I decided I wanted to be a math teacher.”
Mendoza now teaches at Gadsden High School in Anthony, New Mexico, a town of about 9,300 hard against the Texas state line, about 21 miles north of El Paso. It’s an agricultural area and pecan orchards lead right up to the Gadsden campus. The town is 97 percent Latino, and 40 percent live below the poverty level. Most of Gadsden’s students qualify for subsidized lunches.
In his 22 years at Gadsden, Mendoza has developed a reputation as an exacting teacher who pushes his students, firmly but gently, to succeed—and not just in his class. He monitors their grades, checks with their other teachers, he calls their parents, he calls them. He arranges tutoring. He brings food—cookies, or even burritos—to class on big test days, because no student should have to take an important exam while hungry. The sixth of 11 children, he remembers what it’s like to go to school with a stomach not quite full.
“He has a tremendous sense of ownership,” says Gadsden Principal Hector S. Giron. “He sees a reflection of himself in the students here. He’s a very loving individual—not a word you hear often in education.”
One of his former students, Gabriel Holguin, puts it another way: “He’s like the father I never had.”
Mendoza teaches Spanish, not math, and the journey that took him from the world of vector analysis and Boolean algebra to that of Cervantes and Garcia Marquez is one that involved high hopes, punishing setbacks and, crucially, the intervention of friends and teachers who knew when to step in and say, “Yes, you can.”
He grew up in San Jose de Manantiales, a town with perhaps 600 residents, and no school, in the state of Guanajuato. He and other children had to cross the highway to the neighboring town of Franco, which was even smaller, but had a school with first and second grades.
He repeated second grade a few times because attending third grade and beyond meant walking about four miles along the highway to reach a school in another town, Franco Tavera. After he was older, he and other children would walk together to the other school, where the principal asked him to teach the little kids.
He came to the United States with an uncle in 1974, arriving by bus in Chicago on Christmas Eve. He was reunited with his parents, who had come to the States three years earlier. He was 15, had a sixth-grade education and spoke no English. He was placed in sixth grade but was able to speed through grades quickly, landing at Harrison Technical High School in 18 months.
These days he recounts for frustrated students his own efforts to master another language. He tells them how, when ordering food, “I only asked for a hamburger, fries and Coke,” because that’s all he could say in English.
Bit by bit, his vocabulary grew. In time he was ordering 7 Up or lemonade. Maybe orange juice. It’s the little things, he says, that you have to practice. “Kids don’t hear this enough,” he says.
After high school he enrolled at the University of Chicago with the goal of becoming a math teacher. But he did poorly, and his still evolving English became a frequent stumbling block. Victor Torres, a fellow Mexican immigrant Mendoza had met in high school, urged Mendoza to leave Chicago and join him at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a transfer.
“What if they don’t take me in?” Mendoza said.
“You don’t lose anything by trying,” replied Torres, who helped him prepare the application and even delivered it personally to the admissions office.
Mendoza went on a trip to Mexico and returned to Chicago to discover a letter from the University of Illinois waiting for him. He was scared to read it, but then remembered what Torres had said. He opened the envelope. “Welcome,” it began.
He transferred to Urbana-Champaign but again struggled academically, mainly because of his developing English. Finally, after more disappointing math grades, he changed his major to Spanish, and during a visit to Harrison High he grudgingly told his old teachers of the switch.
“I felt I let myself down when I changed from math to Spanish, because it had been my plan for so long,” he says. “I felt like I had let everybody down.”
Later, a friend at Urbana-Champaign, another fellow immigrant from Mexico, faintly echoed the confidence-building principal back in Guanajuato. Mendoza’s voice gets shaky when he recounts what his friend, Teodosio Garcia, said.
“No te preocupes. Te vas a ser maestro.”
Don’t worry. You’re going to be a teacher.
“I started to think, ‘He’s right. I’m still going to be a teacher,’” he says. True, it wasn’t math. But it was teaching.
Fast forward a few decades to Anthony, New Mexico. Gabriel Holguin was a freshman, and the transition to high school wasn’t going well.
“I disliked my freshman year because I really didn’t have a teacher who cared,” Gabriel says. “I didn’t understand several of my classes, and also I wasn’t the brightest student. Several teachers gave up on me.”
His GPA was a dismal 1.8. Gabriel says one district official even suggested he drop out of school and get a job “like a real man.”
“There was a point I wanted to give up,” Gabriel says. “I thought I wasn’t going to graduate at all.”
Then one day he walked into Mendoza’s classroom, what he calls “a funky class with a wild teacher.”
The walls are decorated with inspirational sayings, such as “Respeto + Dedicacion = éxito.” Respect + Dedication = Success. Taped to one cabinet door is a black and white photograph showing four rows of excessively serious Mexican third-graders from the 1972-73 school year.
“Where’s Mr. Mendoza?” asks a caption in Spanish. The Gadsden mascot is the panther, and Mendoza often exhorts his students with “va manos panteras!” Let’s go, Panthers!
“As soon as I walked into his class,” Gabriel says, “I felt the love and the warmth. He shook my hand and welcomed me with a huge smile that brightened my day.”
But many students, and even relatives, had warned him not to take Mendoza’s class. He’s too demanding, they said, his expectations too high. An uncle had dropped his class.
Gabriel’s aunt, Laura Melissa Medina, took AP Spanish with Mendoza in 2004 and remembers her thoughts after the first week: “I’m dropping this class. I don’t want to deal with this man.” But she held on. “I stuck it out, and I loved that class.”
She wasn’t surprised when her nephew was advised to drop out. Some adults don’t expect much of kids in Anthony, she says. But not Mendoza. She says that when she was getting her master’s in Spanish, she realized that some of the course work was familiar because she had studied the material back in Mendoza’s class. She also remembers the frequent exhortations of “vamanos panteras” and the snacks he brings in on big test days. One time they were a burrito short. He gave her his.
Mendoza credits his own teachers for the drive he tries to instill in his students. “I was afraid to succeed,” he says.
His voice tinged with disbelief, he wonders why his teachers singled him out.
“They could have chosen somebody else,” he says.
He credits his parents, too, for his life’s work. Meliton and Maria Amparo Mendoza had minimal education—“they just barely could write their names”—but “they always tried to tell us how important it was to go to school.”
So when Gabriel’s grades were plummeting, Mendoza reached out to his other teachers, asked about tutoring, checked up on Gabriel constantly. Gabriel’s parents are separated, and he had missed many father-son moments others take for granted.
One time Mendoza walked into the restroom to discover Gabriel struggling to tie a tie. “Gabriel, come here,” he said.
Back in his classroom, Mendoza gave him a lesson not found on any AP Spanish syllabus. “I got it on the third try,” Gabriel says.
For Mendoza, one key to teaching is finding a way to connect to students. Ask him about his work and the words “connect,” “connection” and “connecting” pour forth again and again. Gabriel just needed some direction and support.
Gabriel transferred to Alma d’Arte Charter High School in Las Cruces, but his relationship with Mendoza continues. His old teacher still calls to check up on him, sometimes even asking how things are going with his girlfriend.
Last semester, Gabriel got straight A’s, and in the fall he’ll begin courses at New Mexico State University. “I want to be a teacher,” he says, not surprisingly.
He’s interested in social studies and perhaps working with special education students, the kind who often need an extra bit of encouragement, a reassuring nudge—or maybe even a lesson in tying a tie. “I knew he was a smart kid,” Mendoza says simply. According to the calendar, Gabriel should be entering his senior year of high school. But this determined young man—who once carried a 1.8 GPA—will be graduating a year early.