I was passing the In-N-Out Burger on Washington on my way back to Venice High School where I teach when I noticed a handful of students -- seniors permitted to leave campus at lunch; they were scarfing down burgers and sharing fries and shakes on the patio. One called out, "Hey Mr. D. if I'm late for sixth, start without me. This Double Double with Cheese, ya know..."
Five feet behind him, in the restaurant's window, a placard boasting an "A" rating from the Department of Health.
Back in my classroom, I sipped my coffee and enjoyed a few quiet moments before my last class of 40 students stormed in and shattered the calm.
My eyes fell on a long, twisted strip of black material lying in a clump on my desk. I had worn it around my left bicep the day before, next to my heart.
Naturally my students asked why I was wearing this knotted accoutrement that clashed with my maroon and white striped button down.
"It's in memory of Rigoberto Ruelas, the teacher from Miramonte Elementary School who killed himself. You didn't hear about him?"
My students aren't big on current events. Every Tuesday and Friday the LA Times generously sends 20 newspapers to my classroom, and my students tend to dig out the Calendar and Sports sections, involving themselves in lighter fare.
"Why'd he kill himself?" a girl asked.
"Well, no one can know for sure. But last week the LA Times published ratings of English and math teachers in The District. How their students fared on some standardized tests. And because of his kids' scores, Mr. Ruelas was deemed an ineffective teacher."
"Sucks," someone said.
"How'd you rate?" another student called out.
"Mr. D. rated as very, very old."
We laughed for a moment.
"That's not a category they judge us on, least not yet. And this time only elementary schools."
"That's not fair," someone added.
"No seriously, he killed himself 'cause he got a bad score?"
"It seems," I said, "that Mr. Ruelas must have been overcome with shame. He was publicly humiliated. And his value, his worth as a teacher, which obviously meant the world to him, was posted for everyone to see. Listen, there's a lot about him on the net. Go on line if you like."
"I know Miramonte Elementary school," a student said. "I got a cousin who stay near there. It's bad."
"From what I read his students really liked him and he talked some of them out of jumping into gangs, and he stayed after school tutoring kids, on his own dime. He grew up in that neighborhood. Came back and taught there."
"What grade he teach?"
"Fifth, I think."
"God, can you imagine those kids?"
"No, I can't. Now grab something to read. You know the drill. I'll do my thing and we'll talk in ten."
I knocked down my last sip of coffee and began to study my students, most of whom were lost in sections of the LA Times or in an anthology of Venice High School student writing that I keep in class.
Soon they'd forget Rigoberto Ruelas, if they hadn't already.
I folded the black cloth, placed it in my desk drawer, and slid it shut.
I silently checked roll.
Most of my students had shown up, most seemed engrossed in whatever they were reading.
Two were clearly sleeping.
One pretended to read, but I could tell by the rhythmic nodding of his head and by the iPod bud crammed deep into his ear that he wasn't bopping to the beat of a Bill Plaschke essay.
I finished checking roll, but my mind kept flashing on the restaurant's report card. That large, proud "A."
My turn to go on line.
County of Los Angeles.
Department of Public Health.
Self Inspection Report.
In order for the local In-N-Out to receive its "A" it had to pass a rigorous 71-point inspection.
County health workers checked the facility for contaminated food, ventilation, hair restraints, workers' nails, hazardous materials, cockroaches, rodents and vermin, food temperatures, food contact surfaces, improperly covered food, thawing methods, cleanliness of ceiling, walls, floors and toilets. The list goes on and on.
For burgers, fries and shakes.
I never met Rigoberto Ruelas.
And no one will ever know for certain the exact cause of his death.
But I will always remember this 39-year-old teacher who grew up in a tough 'hood south of downtown LA, worked as a teacher's aide, graduated college, then returned home and helped raise up others, his neighbors' kids.
Maybe something good will come from this young man's life and death.
Maybe when the bullying, the name calling, the finger pointing, the excuse making and all the b.s. surrounding the reasons our schools suck so badly calms down, just for a moment, maybe someone or a bunch of someones will remember that Rigoberto Ruelas was a man who made a difference, a man who gave his way too short a life to his community and to his students.
And maybe everyone who really cares about public education will understand that Rigoberto Ruelas should have been judged as least as thoroughly as a Double Double with Cheese.