THE BLOG
03/15/2013 02:32 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013

Victor Rivers Connects

The current trend, well, obsession, in public schools is with standardized testing.

I teach high school English in the LAUSD and my students spend a minimum of 15 school days a year sitting in front of me bubbling in answers. The great thing about bubbling in A. B. C. or D. is that those tests can be graded by computers and based on those scores students, teachers and schools can be evaluated on the amount of information that has been taught and retained. It's good, raw data ready for assessment.

Or as Sgt. Friday used to say on Dragnet, "Just the facts, ma'am."

Yet there is a problem with this compulsive need to measure what students know or don't know, and that is that wisdom doesn't necessarily fit into the testing format.

In fact, sometimes students learn when their guard is down. When they don't even think they are learning. When they are not taking notes.

I witnessed this recently at an auditorium program I helped to organize at Venice High School.
Trying to convince teachers to abandon their regular curriculum for one period is no easy task. It can break a teacher's rhythm, especially for those who teach the same course three or four times a day. And the subject matter for the program I had arranged focused on domestic violence, not a natural crowd pleaser like the Black History Month Assembly or Meet Your 2012-2013 Cheer Squad.

So I displayed a few posters around the school which caught some eyes, for in large white letters below the handsome, bronze-skinned, macho man who stared directly into the camera were the words, "I Am Not a Woman."

Well, obviously.

Victor Rivas Rivers, Cuban-American, once a violently abused child and teenager, former Florida State football star, former Miami Dolphin, and better known to my students as Antonio Bandera's ill-fated brother in The Mask of Zorro and prison warlord Magic Mike in the Blood In, Blood Out, tends to attract attention wherever he goes.

Only 400 students had signed up listen to Victor speak as Spokesperson for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. But when word circulated he was on campus, at the last minute 600 more students crashed the party.

A thousand teenagers in a high school auditorium usually means one thing - chaos.

Victor greeted the students first in English, then in Spanish, and for the next 30 minutes he did what I had never seen another speaker do - he mesmerized every one of those thousand teenagers--and their teachers.

He told the story of his life, about which he wrote in his memoir, A Private Family Matter. That story included beatings so bad that when he was in middle school and went to the police station where he stripped down to show the cops what was happening, they were so repulsed by the evidence of beatings Victor had endured at the hands of his father, they had to look away.

He spoke of being in constant trouble as a teen. Of the anger that welled inside. Of his desire to hit back at his father who terrorized his brothers, his sister and his mother. And he spoke of the importance of friends and friends' families who came to his rescue, and he spoke especially of his teachers and an administrator who supported him, encouraged him to stay in school, to hang in and who literally saved him from starving by feeding him. All of these people, Victor told our kids, helped to guide him to the road to sanity and recovery.

He said, "Sometimes I see men and boys trying to outdo each other by proving 'Quien es macho? Who's more tough, more manly?' But I believe a man who joins in the movement to end violence against women and children, who confronts those who commit the violence, who set an example for boys and younger men and who will stand up to and protect and respect women. That is a man."
That drew more applause than I'd ever seen at Venice High.

But when Victor said, "For those boys or young men who want to know what girls really want, I think it's to make her feel safe and to respect her."

That was greeted with still more thunderous applause.

When the program ended, Victor was mobbed. Students wanted handshakes, autographs, and photographs. Some just wanted to stand near him, as if they drew strength with their own struggles through his presence and understanding.

Days later I asked my students, if they were so inclined, to write Victor thank you notes.

Felipe wrote, "You inspired me. My girlfriend dealt with relationship abuse by her ex-boyfriend and has been afraid of him. Thanks to you she is overcoming that fear and is happier now."

Tyler wrote, "You really moved me when you lifted your fist and said, 'This is not love.'"

I'd never seen my students so eager to write as they were that day.

After class one student handed me a note which read, "I've dealt with abuse in a relationship and didn't know who to tell and was scared of how he might react if I did confide in someone. What you're doing gives me hope in myself by knowing there are people here to help."

I asked her if she wanted to talk to the school psychologist.

She nodded, and then burst into tears.

Now she is in therapy and slowly dealing with the violence that had been part of her life for way too long.

Had she spent the day in class preparing for another standardized test, she would have missed Victor's speech, and well, who knows when she would have found the strength, if ever, to say, "Enough."

In this age of obsessive testing, it's clear to me that students sometimes need to get out of their classrooms in order to learn something that can't be graded but might just stick, something that will make a difference in the world we are creating together.