Aurelio’s redemption

Young Whan Choi and his students in front of MetWest High School

Young Whan Choi is a humanities teacher at MetWest High School in Oakland. (He also has a blog about teaching.) He started his career in Providence, RI, and recently heard from one of his former students. – Katy

The voice message began with “Wow, stranger!” One of my students, Aurelio, had called; it had been ten years since his graduation, since we had last smiled at one another.

Listening to the message, I immediately worried that something might be wrong. During my four years as his teacher, I was accustomed to bad news from Aurelio. One of my first conversations with him before he even started ninth grade in my classroom was about his cousin who was in jail awaiting his trial for accessory to murder. This older cousin was the one whom Aurelio had looked up to and who had eventually brought him into the gang life. A year later he confided in me that he had spent several night sleepless, worried that he might have shot someone while he had been in a drunken state. And throughout his time in high school, I experienced regular disappointments as he struggled to develop homework habits.

So what could this call be about? Slightly apprehensive, I dialed him back. To an outsider, this conversation may have sounded more like good friends at a high school reunion rather than a teacher and his now adult student. But my relationship with Aurelio and his peers was atypical. I knew his whole family. I had shared meals at his house, and we had even traveled together to a conference in Washington, D.C. During that trip he had shared dinner with my grandfather in my parents’ home.

I was not Jaime Escalante, and this was not Stand and Deliver. I was not some superhero teacher, saving my 130 students from the ills of society. In fact, in this public high school started by the Big Picture Company (a national school network), it was part of my job description to make home visits and to develop close, personal relationships with my students. This intimacy was simply part of their formula for making school work for all students. Having the same fourteen students all day everyday for four years is an example of the type of institutional change and commitment of resources that allows for meaningful teacher-student relationships. Aurelio often confided in me that he felt pulled in two directions – the streets and school. I witnessed his tearful regrets about the past and fears of an uncertain future.

As Aurelio and I reconnected over this phone call, I learned that he had spent much of the last ten years working on roofs with his father. Then he had injured himself. Unable to work, he thought about what he really wanted to do with his life. His work options were limited. His status in this country as an undocumented person had prohibited him from attending college and had demoralized him as he watched his peers make their post-high school plans. However, his heart told him there was more for himself in this world. He wanted to do something he loved – to cook.

As a tenth grade student, he had interned at a local Italian restaurant. Exploring your interests through internships was a key component of the Big Picture model, which had as one of its mottos “Pursue your Passions.” While his time at this restaurant ended ignominiously, a seed had been planted. Injured and reassessing his life, Aurelio turned to cooking food from his home culture of Venezuela and started a catering business with his family. Despite the economic downturn, Aurelio had been successful over the past couple of years and was contemplating opening his own restaurant. More striking than this news was the excitement in his voice. His life seemed full of possibility where once he had only seen limitations. While he had spent much of high school engaged in self-destructive behaviors, Aurelio as an adult was taking positive steps to live a meaningful life.

And then, he told me the most uplifting news of the call. He had obtained legal status in this country. While driving without a license, Aurelio had been arrested and was waiting for his moment in court. He was told that he should sign some papers if he wanted to get out of his predicament. Unwittingly, he signed agreement to his own deportation. In that moment of great despair, he was without friends or family. He looked around and miraculously found a familiar face. It was the face of an immigration lawyer whom we had sought counsel from during his senior year of high school. This lawyer happened to be in the courtroom and recognized Aurelio; he assisted Aurelio in not only avoiding deportation but also in putting in motion his application for residency.

I was overwhelmed by all this news. It made me question my growing skepticism and rekindled the light of hope, which had grown dim over the past twelve years in public education. I felt enormous gratitude for having been a part of this young man’s journey and for the many players who had contributed to Aurelio’s redemption. He had found a public school with the resources to provide him with caring adults in the form of teachers, social workers, and principals. His various high school mentors had given him an opportunity to experience the adult world of work and not to fear it. One mentor in particular did street outreach to gang members had significantly influenced Aurelio’s decision to stay out of gang life. His peers kept pushing him to stay in school. A chance encounter with an immigration lawyer allowed him to stay rooted here in the United States. His family loved and supported him. And through all his mistakes, Aurelio made the decision over and over again to choose to run his life rather than to let the streets run him.

In remembering how many hands reached out to Aurelio over the years, I see clearly that the redemption of our young people lies not only in their own efforts, but also in the commitment of our society at large. Will we be the dedicated mentors and teachers of our young people? Will we love our children even when they seem to be going astray? Will we fight to keep money in our public schools? When our young people are desperately looking to find their way, will we hold up a candle to cast light on their path or will we blow smoke in their faces?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    An interesting story. it doesn’t hold water.

    One of the things you get used to when you work in the courts is the lying that goes on by the defendants, their families, friends and the “victims”. They all lie – or if you want to be charitable about it, they just run their mouths with no regard for any kind of accuracy.

    Over time you get used to sob stories that just don’t hold water. And it’s nothing personal, they lie to themselves all the time also. You just happen to be handy to lie to.

    So when you are the recipient of these sob stories you get used to testing the story against experience and common sense. And you never believe anything at face value even from people you wish you could believe off the bat. You are of little use to anyone if you do.

    So this story – an illegal alien invader goes to our public school, is associated with criminal gangsters (as is the problem with the Mexican Invasion), finishes school (graduated?) declines to go to either community college or trade schools (which I believe do enroll illegal aliens). He seeks employment for 10 years in an occupation that is one of the worst in the state for injuries (and the highest worker’s comp premiums) – roofing. Apparently he did not learn a lot in our public schools about stats and strategic planning. He neglected to consider armed forces which is a way to get citizenship – perhaps that would have been safer than roofing. By some unexplained miracle he gets a green card (rad-lib politicians want to convert the occupiers en masse to legals…). Happy day for him. Then he gets a CVC §14601 cite/arrest because his public school education and training failed and neglected to teach him respect for law and self (why can’t a man with a green card get a license??) and he expects us to believe while in court (custody? nobody is in custody for §14601 by itself) he “accidentally” signs a deportation agreement.


    How clueless are we to buy into a sob story like this?

    If I were dealing with someone with a story like this I’d tell them to start from the begging and this time tell the rest of the story, the one that includes the truth, the whole truth, etc. And show all the documents they usually refuse to bring in or display. At some point the real story will gradually emerge which is nothing like the first version.

    It’s great that this teacher hears from old students. I’d love to read more stories about old students getting in touch and discussing the effect their high school instruction had on their development and their lives.

    I have commented before about how teachers must be very careful to avoid being played by children bearing sob stories – especially those involving law enforcement, getting thrown out of the Grand Lake Theater, and abused my mean Meter Maids and Store shopkeepers. Especially when the purpose of telling the teacher the story is to enlist them in acting on behalf of the story teller and departing from the detachment required of the job. When these stories arrive the best practice is to refer them to an expert who can cut through the BS.

    There is likely to be a felony in this affair somewhere. And then we can get down to the nitty gritty.

  • Nextset

    typo..start from the ‘beginning’ and this time tell the rest of the story…

  • On the Fence

    For me this is an uplifting tale of serendipity and blessings. It is always amazing to be a witness to these events, as was the author of this post. I don’t view this as a story involving teaching or education, so much as a nice story of the miracles that touch us everyday. I am happy for Aurelio as he serendipitously received the outcome he desired, for the lawyer who practiced compassion, and the author who writes that this story “rekindled the light of hope” within him.

  • Nextset

    On The Fence: Problem is, we are supposed to be educators not suckers. We are not in business to get a flood of serotonin when students push our buttons with some story (as opposed to a six figure job offer they got in the mail – I confess to getting a rush when someone I trained makes a huge career move). Teachers are professionals with all the boundaries and careful thought a professional must walk around with. Sometimes I think that’s no longer being taught in teacher schools.

    It’s great that a student gets in touch. And nice to hear if things are going well, especially so if there were certain things that were covered in class that contributed to good decisions in the student’s career. That’s what I’d love to hear.

    This story about his day in court doesn’t hold any water at all. It seems full of holes. Big holes, glaring holes. You want to throw a garland of flowers around him. Who next are you going to praise and for what? Exactly what has this student done that is so noble? You are supposed to stay out of trouble if you had decent teachers. I know illegal aliens who stay out of custody. They work hard so their kids have housing and food and can go to school and not work in the fields. I see plenty of 1st generation legals (anchor babies) going to college & trade schools, not joining gangs. Good for them, but I expect it, I’m not giving them a medal for it, it would be condescending. Been through that credit to your race stuff.

    One thing of note was the point about using a court appointed lawyer before you sign anything or say anything. Especially if you are vulnerable as illegals are.

    Turning to Katy’s last paragraph. That’s a real issue. I read it over again.

    How much money can we justify spending on illegal alien gang-bangers (and related social services) in a large school district like OUSD? Who do we have to cut or short change to provide attention, staffing and services to the Aurelio’s of the district? Is that a proper expenditure of the district, is it only proper for private charities and churches to do?

    The day is coming when OUSD and the other municipalities may have to decide such things. They are already deciding to terminate Adult Ed – if required by looming cuts. It’s not as if you want to cut so much, but what do you do when you are told to cut such and such percent this cycle.

    Sorry to be the skunk at the garden party but someone needs to be contrarian around here and I volunteer.

    Brave New World.

  • Hot r

    I often wonder what the point of these stories can be? Is this an uplifting tale of achievement? I Am glad that Aurelio is not in jail, but I have to agree with Nextset. I just heard from one of my old students yesterday too. He graduated from Stanford, as the first in his family to attend college, received the departmental award as the top student in his field, a National Science Foundation scholarship for graduate school, and will be interning with Tesla this summer.

  • OUSD lifer

    I see the point of these stories is two-fold:
    1. To remind all of us in the community that, if given love and support, kids have the potential to turn out ok in the world despite the fact that the odds are against them…and please be clear that the odds are stacked against some kids to an incredible height. So maybe someone who reads these types of stories will actually get involved in the lives of young people and make a difference with their life by putting their privilege to work for the greater good.
    2. To remind those of us that actually DO this work (versus those who sit around blogging in judgement of how WE do this work) that our work has an impact and that we may not ever see the positive outcomes of our hard work and dedication, but some of the seeds we plant do come to fruition.

    These are not the only stories of success, but please don’t judge until you have been the one who sat at work in fear that the kid who is tardy is the reason that three cop cars just sped past with sirens blaring after gunfire shot through the sky. And, no, I’m not being dramatic, I’m telling it like it is. I challenge you go try to do this work. It’s hard…harder than you could ever imagine or handle becase, no matter your politics, these are real, live kids we’re talking about.

  • On The Fence


    No, no, I must not have stated my point. I actually don’t see any evidence of superior student achievement, or any particularly interesting schooling/teaching issue in this story. Nor was the character in this tale particularly compelling, although I generally wish him well. And yes, my response was simple and pure pleasure to hear about the chance encounter of Aurelio and the lawyer who would end up helping him in his darkest hour! What pushed my button was not the student or his personal story, but rather the idea of chance. Although a little beyond the scope of this blog, there are days that hearing about coincidences, serendipity, miracles, an aligned universe, and general good luck help to rekindle my own spirits.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Nextset, you have a better imagination than these pathological liars you encounter.

    Guy may not have developed into a rocket scientist, but you’re assuming “there is likely to be a felony in this affair somewhere.”

    Whatever you job is, it has apparently distorted your view of humanity to be entirely dark.

    Kids lie, adults lie, sure. We know this. They also sometimes tell the truth.

  • Nextset

    Cranky: If you want to compare your experience and insight with mine in a courtroom, go right ahead. Bet money on it. Bet time on it.

    There is a reason why a man is in custody and a mere driving without a license isn’t likely to be that reason. Tickets are given for that.

    California is full of illegal alien invaders and they are constantly in and out of our courts. Especially traffic court where Mexicans are by far the dominant defendants in many counties. In 30 years I’ve not seen or heard of someone being deported or being asked to sign a deportation agreement just because of a CVC § 14601 ticket. Those cases are common with illegals, they agree to pay a fine and are on their way.

    The story is so far out of line it is in my experienced opinion not accurate. Felonies get you deported (and sometimes only when you get more than a year and a day in prison rather than county jail) – or the most serious misdemeanor – child molesting.

    While anything is possible, I and We were not born last night.

    So we have you presuming to say someone who works in the courts can’t reasonably be allowed to have an opinion on facts like these…

    And this is what we have teaching students at OUSD.

    You substitute your wants and your desires for established data and statistics. People who do this in card games are called losers. People who do this in life are called losers also. Don’t train your students to be losers. There is too much winning available for the taking and the poor kids shouldn’t have to go to Piedmont schools in order to win.

    It is not a distorted view of humanity to perceive when someone is telling a sob story. It is a skill that well trained teenagers should be picking up in schools. Alas, they have to have good teachers to train them to be dispassionate in dealing with people and use all their wits and senses to not be fooled or victimized (by friends, foes and strangers).

    That skill can save their lives starting at 18 and every day thereafter.

  • Rick


    I agree with you brother. I grew up with some of the best cons in the world. This is easy to see through.

    “Poor white people” as my grandma used to say, “When God said “brains, they thought God said “rain” and they ran for cover.” They just don’t get.

  • Nextset

    Rick: Save us from White Liberals!

  • Enough Ignorance

    I am appalled at the responses to this story. This is a public forum that our OUSD students have access to, and Nextset is broadcasting his racism and ignorance to students who are in very similar situations to Aurelio. I work in a public school in Oakland as a college counselor, and half of the students I work with are undocumented. These students are the hardest working, respectful, and bright students out of all the students I work with. Most of them receive straight A’s and think about college more than any of their peers because they do not have the privilege of free financial aid that their friends do. Nextset, you call Aurelio an, “illegal alien invader” who, “is associated with criminal gangsters (as is the problem with the Mexican Invasion), finishes school (graduated?) declines to go to either community college or trade schools (which I believe do enroll illegal aliens). You speak of Aurelio’s lies, but already you have made a number of assumptions and lies about who he is when you have no idea. Did you not see in the story that he did not get involved in gangs? Why do you question whether Aurelio graduated?

    There is a vast injustice happening to our public schools to our undocumented students who did not choose to be undocumented and face hardships in their lives that most of us with never understand. They grew up here alongside their peers since they were children, they share the same culture and lifestyle, and in every other way except for their papers, they are Americans. They attend our public schools, and they work hard to be outstanding members of our communities even though they face challenges their peers do not. How dare Nextset look down on Aurelio for working in roofing because that is a “job where there are the most injuries”. Here your ignorance is painstakingly apparent. Do you think Aurelio had the same choices as far as getting a job as his peers who are citizens? Being undocumented means you cannot find a job, or go to school unless you have money to pay for it yourself. First you shun him for being a “criminal gangster” and then you look down on him for working in roofing? Why would he want to enroll in the Armed Forces to protect a country of people like you who refuse to give him a chance? Aurelio was doing what he could with the opportunities given to him. Obviously you, Nextset, who apparently works in courts does not understand what it means to go to college if you are an undocumented, first generation student. Who paid for your law school (that is, if you even went)? What counselor in what community told you you were good enough to go to college? Did you receive financial aid? Did your parents have a college education who helped you along your way? Even if you didn’t receive all of these things, know that the student you are dismissing and insulting probably didn’t have any of these.

    Enough of trying to educate someone who does not deserve even a moment of our students time. To those undocumented students who might be reading this and deal with racism such as this everyday: KEEP GOING. You will encounter those who try to call you what you are not because they have never seen or been through what you have. You inspire me and so many others by simply continuing being strong in your communities and facing those who would block your way with their ignorance. You are amazing students who deserve to go to college with financial like your peers and find a road to citizenship like Aurelio.

  • Nextset

    Enough Ignorance: It’s great to see your opinion, for what it’s worth. I can better guage it’s worth if you tell us something about yourself. You sound young. You sound rather liberal – have you ever made a payroll, run a business? Have you ever made a living doing anything other than “counseling”?

    You also seemed to have some difficulty reading my post – what is your education level? You are throwing around the racism term as if I care, or as if use of that term means anything. Did you attend a “competitive” school? Have you ever counseled students in a competitive program?

    My comments about this story stand – you are welcome not to like it. I don’t opine to suit you. My opinions are my own as are yours. Maybe you should re-read my posts.

    My primary concern here is a young teacher who fails to take sob stories with a grain of salt, and my continuing concern for educrats who want to place garlands of flowers around the necks of just about anyone for no good reason, other than being black or brown and having a reflection in the mirror.

    I expect anyone to stay out of trouble, I don’t insult someone by praising them for it. If a teacher maintains his professional detachment and distance he won’t feel the need to praise students for nothing.

    Yes, just because you teach ghetto kids you don’t have to praise them for insignificant achievement. That is a bad thing to do and sets them up for trouble later. You accept work properly done with mere acknowledgement and chastise a student for falling below your expectations. Singular achievement you can praise.

    Now exactly what is it about Aurelio would you call a singular achievement? Nothing that I can see. It’s nice that he got in touch. That’s all we really have to work with. Wish him well.

    Maybe when you’re grown and you work with or spend time with people of real distinction – black, white, or any other color, you will understand what I’m saying.

  • Uncle Obo

    Nextset: Methinks you’re on the money with this one. I’ve seen the same in corporations more than one time too many. Someone will sell their story, woven with but one strand of truth, then the buyer (either still believing in the overstated value of their purchase, or lying to cover their embarrassment over having been so easily duped) will propagate the tale and/or embellish it enough to cover the portion they found untrue.

    Unfortunately for these, one fact remains: In order to get away with being bad, one must first be the best at being good – and that’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s always much easier to just remain with the truth, no matter what you believe others might prefer to hear or how painful it may be to do so.