National Writing Project

Lorenzo and a Christmas Door to Remember

By: Melba Salazar-Lucio
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1
Date: 2005

Summary: A Christmas door–decorating contest inspires a class of at-risk high school students to drop their apathy, and a Christmas card from the teacher touches one student more deeply than she could have imagined.

 

Some people say the art of letter writing is dead. I say letter writing is alive and well . . . at least for me. In fact, writing personal letters to my students at the end of each semester has become a trademark of mine. Each year, as I write Christmas cards to my students, I remind myself of the power of writing, and how it touches others. And each year this tradition also reminds me of my former student Lorenzo and the lesson he taught me: that as a teacher I never know what it is that will help a student connect—even something as unexpected as a Christmas door-decorating contest.

In the late 1980s, with seven years of experience behind me, I was teaching language arts at James Pace High School in Brownsville, Texas. One otherwise uneventful day, my principal, Mr. Valent, called me into his office. Once I was seated, he began the conversation by telling me that I was a "great teacher." (I know now to beware of any conversation with an administrator that starts like this, but at the time his words simply thrilled me.) Mr. Valent went on to say that he wanted me to try a new and different challenge. Our district, he explained, was implementing the Students Taught in an Alternative Return to Success program—a program, also known as STARS, for "at-risk" students—and he wanted me to take on one of the STARS classrooms.

The intent of the program was to help move troubled students toward graduation. In actuality—at least from my experience—this meant moving all the students that no other teachers wanted in their classes—the drug- or alcohol-addicted students, the runaway students, the truant students, the incarcerated students, the apathetic students, and the repeating freshmen ranging in age from 15 to 21—into a portable building behind the school's tennis courts, away from the hustle and bustle of the "regular" high school students. The assignment wasn't ideal, but as Mr. Valent had promised, it was "new and different."

My class was with me all day long, working on fulfilling their graduation credits in math, science, social studies, health, language arts, and so forth—a self-contained class working on individual modules pertaining to each discipline. We were on our own—except for the single hour when Mr. Haught, the art teacher, came to "mess up" my classroom with his projects. Poor guy, he did not even have a sink in the portable classroom; he was a talented, nice guy and the students loved to speak to him in Spanish because he did not understand it. They were cruel, but as time progressed, Mr. Haught caught on and learned the bad words.

That first December, the high school hosted a Christmas door-decorating contest; the prize was a Coke-and-pizza party. Although many high school students can be apathetic about such events, a few of my students expressed their wish to enter, so I proceeded to the local fabric store where I purchased a six-foot-tall fabric print of a Christmas tree. Our plan was to make the tree look three dimensional with multicolored sequins, shimmering rhinestones in different shapes, white pearls, sparkling beads, candy canes, red bows, glitter, puff paints, brightly colored feathers, and stringed white lights to serve as flaming candles. All in all, I spent about $100 on what became a class bonding project.

Surprisingly, as the project unfolded, every single one of my so-called unmotivated students bought into it. Eventually, my students were not just entering the contest; their goal was to win the James Pace High School Christmas Door-Decorating Contest. In particular, one freshman, Lorenzo, really seemed to connect with the project. In an uncharacteristic display, he was soon leading the entire effort. Immediately I noticed a change in his work ethic and behavior. He stopped arriving tardy and even got to class early so he could work on the door project. The last two weeks before Christmas break, Lorenzo had perfect attendance—a feat never before accomplished by this particular student. He even started tucking in his shirttail when he came into my classroom—a rule I was sure he regularly ignored just to hear me complain.

The door-decorating contest rules specifically stated that students could not work on the door during "instructional time." Lorenzo, who had always been the first student to rush out the classroom door whistling loudly or screaming, even started to stay after school to work on completing the door project. It was during this time that Lorenzo and I began sharing a little more about ourselves—including Lorenzo's story about his nickname, Loro. Students in class often called him Loro, and I never knew why. As Lorenzo explained it, his unusual greenish golden eyes reminded his friends of loros, the loud, wild green parrots found along the Rio Grande River on the United States/Mexican border.

The day of contest arrived, and the judging began. Not surprisingly, because our portable building was at the back of the school, it was nearly overlooked. The judges forgot all about our Christmas door. Realizing the mistake as the students put the finishing touches on our display, I called the school office. By the time the contest judges arrived at my door, all was finished; the door was radiant with its candlelight shine and musical components. At the end of the day, the winners were announced. Third place was announced; second place was called; and then came the silent pause before announcing the first place winners. Our class had won first place!

My students beamed with pride as visitors came by our classroom over the next few days to view the fruits of their work. For many of my students, this contest was their first success in a school-related event. But it was Lorenzo who made the moment particularly powerful. I watched him as, acting as the classroom host, he showed off the door's lights and musical parts. Everything about him was changing, it seemed—his attitude, his interactions—he was like a different person. Watching, I felt like a proud mom.

When the Christmas vacation bell rang, we hurried home to celebrate with our families and friends. The next thing I knew, the newspaper headlines were splattered with Lorenzo's name. He and his brother had been shot and seriously wounded in their own front yard—a gang-related event. I double-checked the address in the newspaper, but I knew the neighborhood and knew the answer: it was my 15-year-old student, Lorenzo. I couldn't believe what I was reading. Just when he seemed to have found his way . . . how could it be?

On the way to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, I asked my husband to drive me to the hospital to see Lorenzo. He was in the intensive care unit. Visitors were not allowed, but it was Christmas and no one was around, so I snuck in. The boy in the bed didn't look like Lorenzo. His small, helpless body—wrapped in bandages and sheets—had tubes and wires coming out of everywhere; his face was swollen and disfigured. I held his hand in mine and told him who I was. I wasn't sure if he knew I was there—he could not speak, eat, drink, or move—or if he was even conscious. A nurse spotted me and asked if I was a relative. I confessed that I was Lorenzo's teacher. Instead of asking me to leave, the nurse told me that hearing is the last sense a person loses, so if I wanted to talk to him that maybe he could hear me. As I spoke to him, I began to cry.

Suddenly someone touched my shoulder. It was Lorenzo's mom. In Spanish, she asked who I was. When I told her, she thanked me for taking the time to come visit her son on this cold Christmas Eve. "My son really liked you," Lorenzo's mother said and smiled. "He treasured the Christmas card you gave him on the day before Christmas break. It was the first personal Christmas card anyone had ever given him, and he hung it in the living room near the window for everyone in the family to admire."

The Christmas card! In the chaos of the events, I had nearly forgotten that I had sent each of my students home with a Christmas card. It was just something I had done at the last moment, and in Lorenzo's card, I think I made mention of how instrumental he had been with the Christmas door project. I was thunderstruck that this small act had meant so much to Lorenzo.

Lorenzo died shortly after I visited with him. But what Lorenzo's mother told me about my Christmas card stuck with me. From that year on, I began writing a personal letter to each of my students at the end of every semester. In each letter I now write, I mention what an asset the student has been in my class and how he or she has improved. As students turn in their final exams, I hand them the handwritten letters to take home.

Sometimes as teachers, we don't realize what a powerful effect personal writing has on our students. I now know that taking time to write to my students makes a difference in their lives whether I see the results or not. So now, each year, no matter how late it is or how sleepy I am the day before the final exam, I write countless letters—all in memory of Lorenzo.

About the Author Melba Salazar-Lucio is a teacher-consultant with the Sabal Palms Writing Project, Texas. She currently works with the teachers of gifted students in the Advanced Academics Department of the Brownsville Independent School District and teaches writing classes at the University of Texas at Brownsville.

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