Ex-gang member – now a scholar – implores Vista Nueva students to choose success

When Erin McChesney went to her principal with a new book for her high school English students, he was skeptical.

Consider the cover. The title, “Street Life: Poverty, Gangs and a Ph.D.,” is scrawled in a graffiti-style font. A cartoonish drawing depicts a man half-dressed in graduation regalia, half in trademark gangster attire.

But Bob Wilkerson, principal at Vista Nueva Career and Technical High School, agreed to read it. Not only did he give McChesney the green light to use it in her classroom, he assigned it to his entire staff to read during last year’s summer break. And after McChesney scraped together funds to bring the book’s author, Victor Rios, to campus, Wilkerson relished a day of watching his students engage so deeply in an educational opportunity.

“You know what? I’ve got to get these kids to read. I’ve got to help them read better,” said Wilkerson, a longtime educator. “What I have to think about – within reason – is what is best for my students. And if they’re going to read that – if they’re going to read the autobiography of Derek Jeter – I’m OK with that, because they’re reading.”

On Wednesday, Rios – a former Oakland gangster who teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara – spent the morning at the continuation high school sharing his story and fielding questions about his path from gangs to academia. Speaking to an audience primarily filled with students of color from the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding the East Del Paso Heights campus, Rios spoke of his family’s struggles spanning from Mexico to a drug-infested Oakland neighborhood. He talked about poverty, racism, lack of opportunity, dropping out of a school system that did not engage him – and the teacher from that system who ultimately inspired him.

Throughout the day, he spoke of striving for success rather than simply survival, and encouraged students to rise above the storyline they feel skeptics have written for them.

“I don’t see risk, I see promise. I don’t see failure, I see success. I don’t see dropouts, I see scholars,” said Rios, 36. “Imagine what you can do, young people!”

His rapport with the students was obvious. After a schoolwide assembly, students shook Rios’ hand, asked for autographs and posed with him for iPhone photos. Several dozen teens later gathered in McChesney’s classroom for a more intimate question-and-answer session, lingering afterward for a few minutes of his time. One student, tears in his eyes, thanked him for the inspiration.

“I’m pretty sure we can all relate to what he did,” said another student, Fernando Lopez, 17. “We’ve all had to do the wrong thing to survive, but we know deep down it’s not the right thing. It just takes the power inside to start making the right choices.”

It was a common theme among students, who repeatedly said they saw elements of their own lives in the pages of Rios’ book. Living in cockroach-infested apartments, never knowing their fathers, struggling with school, fighting – or getting trapped by – the lure of the gang life – these were the experiences they shared with this man who holds a doctorate degree.

“It was a really life-changing book,” said Bianca Aguilar, 17. “Any teenager who’s going through any sort of trouble should read it, because they’ll get something. I could connect to it, too.”

Manuel Macias said he also could relate to the chaos of Rios’ upbringing. But the book was additionally appealing to him because it was written by a Hispanic man, unlike most of the literature he’s been exposed to, he said.

“I don’t know a lot of Mexican writers,” said Macias, 17.

So engrossed in the book were they that he and his friends spent a few lunch periods in McChesney’s classroom just to get through a few more pages.

“When you were done with a chapter, it made you want to go on to the next one,” Macias said.

McChesney said she was introduced to Rios’ book by UC Davis Professor Vajra Watson and immediately saw it as a vital addition to her classroom. After getting approval, she read the book with her seniors in the fall. The results were startling: She saw her students reading on campus and asking to bring the books home. They engaged in spirited debates and wrote letters to Rios. She forfeited her entire field trip budget – $4,500 – to help cover Rios’ $6,500 fee.

The remainder of the money came from a grant from Project DREAM, a nonprofit that typically awards money to cover field trips for disadvantaged students. The group strayed from its mission because it supported McChesney’s goal, she said.

McChesney said she knew the choice might concern some Twin Rivers Unified administrators, but she forged ahead. Like many urban educators, McChesney said she is constantly looking for new ways to captivate her students’ attention and get them reading and writing. Sometimes, that means thinking out of the box.

“I like to ruffle people’s feathers with a firehose,” she said, smiling wryly. “At risk of my own injury, I wanted my kids reading this book – and it worked.”

Many education experts agree that such efforts to adapt and supplement a traditional curriculum to meet the needs of an urban population are laudable. Though the traditional canon of English literature remains a critical component of education, many say alternative texts are needed to round out the curriculum and engage a broader swath of students.

“When we provide a really rich array of works that young people can access and read, then we heighten the possibility that all students have an opportunity to see themselves reflected in the curriculum,” said Steven Athanases, an education professor at UC Davis. “It’s as if the text holds a mirror up to themselves. It provides an opportunity for a young reader to really explore one’s own identity ...”

For those unfamiliar with the experiences of the author, such literature can provide a “window” into another world, Athanases said.

Athanases said alternative literature also can offer a segue into more challenging literature in the canon with similarly compelling themes. For example, McChesney followed “Street Life” with Shakespeare’s “Othello,” much to the chagrin of her students. She convinced them to give it a try, assuring them the play includes topics, such as racism, class struggle and interracial romance. And she appealed to their teenage sensibilities by telling them it’s incredibly vulgar.

“It’s such a raunchy, disgusting, vile, violent, engaging book,” she said, laughing. “Who can resist it?”

Classics like “Othello” might be tough sells for teens, but they’re expected in mainstream education circles. Adding edgier alternatives can be intimidating, Athanases said, especially if a teacher is wary of backlash. Others lack resources to buy new books, or simply don’t have much exposure to nontraditional works.

Wilkerson said it was a risk he was willing to take on his campus.

“What’s that old term? It’s easier to ask for forgiveness? ... I read it myself. There was nothing inappropriate in the book,” he said. “Is it on the district-approved list? No, I don’t think it is. Is it on the state-approved list? No, I don’t think it is – but I talk about it all the time to people in the district.”

McChesney said she looks forward to seeing her students continue to grow as the result of their experience with Rios and his memoir, a transformation she’s already seen in progress.

Meanwhile, she’s looking for the next new book.

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