“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day;
teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” – Confucius
1st Place Winner in Biography/Autobiography
2015 San Francisco Book Festival
Runner Up in Biography/Autobiography
2015 Florida Book Festival
2015 Los Angeles Book Festival
2014 Southern California Book Festival
2014 New England Book Festival
2014 London Book Festival
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A loud voice: “Mr. Lofthouse, I hate you.”
I was leaving my classroom a few hours after school let out. I looked around.
Nothing; then, a familiar face with no name attached. He was standing at the far end of the building by the back gate, holding a paperback book and shaking it for emphasis.
“When I was in ninth grade, I hated you,” he said. “I hated reading. I hated those essays and book reports you made us do, over and over until we got them right. You even got my mom to sit by me at home to make sure I read those books and finished the homework. Now I’m hooked. These fucking books are like drugs. I can’t stop reading them.” He delivered all this with an expression of disgust. Then his face blossomed into a smile. “And I still hate it.”
He turned and walked off campus and into the barrio where his family lived. It was then I remembered who he was. Four years earlier, Fabio had been nothing but pain-in-the-ass full of verbal irony and sarcasm. He’d fought me every inch of the way, but his mother became my ally. She was one of the few parents who listened to my advice, ditched the self-esteem movement, and learned to say no.
Yes, I was no-nonsense; yes, I was a hard-ass; yes, I was a teacher who practiced tough love without the physical punishment many identify with that term. That doesn’t mean I was against a good spanking when a child deserved it. God knows I was spanked as a child when I earned it, and the punishment was for my own good.
I was born into poverty, and the climb out was not easy for our parents. My older brother and sister; my Bible-toting mother; my alcoholic-gambling father; the U.S. Marines; and serving in the Vietnam War as a field radio operator were responsible for the way I saw the world and who I was.
Church bells rang nationwide the day I was born, and my high school dropout father was drunk and soon to be unemployed from his job at the Long Beach shipyards. The bells weren’t for me. They rang for World War II, which ended that day.
Then, a few years later, when I was in first grade, my mother, also a high school dropout, heard, “Mrs. Lofthouse, our tests show that Lloyd is retarded. He will never learn to read. We’re sorry, but there’s nothing we can do for him.”
I remember the tears in my mother’s eyes as she drove us home, and I couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I’m not going to let this happen—not to both of my sons,” she said, determined, while I sat in the passenger seat of the used Buick and retreated into my imagination.
She was talking about me and my brother Richard, sixteen at the time, who ran with a motorcycle gang and had already spent time in jail. By the time he was twenty, my brother’s arms would be covered with colorful tattoos that wiggled when he flexed his muscles.
The men he worked with—when he had a job—were mostly Latino and called him El Caballo, the horse.
When Richard was seven—a few years before my arrival—similar experts told my mother that he’d never learn to read, either. My parents tried to teach him, but he fought them, won, and stayed illiterate. Because my parents had both dropped out of high school at age fourteen during the Great Depression to find work, they didn’t know the importance of literacy until it was too late.
The first house I remember living in was more of a tar-paper shack than a house. My parents bought the small, three bedroom dwelling at a bargain price and moved from Pasadena to Azusa to live near the quarry of a concrete company. The house was framed and had a roof but no windows, doors, or siding—other than the tar paper. The only room that offered privacy was the one bathroom with plywood nailed to the two-by-four framing.
I loved my parents, and I didn’t know any other way to live. They overcame many obstacles to earn their stable, blue-collar, middle-class lifestyle before I was fourteen—not the least of which was their own upbringing.
My mother was abused by her father after her mother had divorced him, and my father’s mother died soon after he was born causing his father to turn to booze and abandon him to an aunt.
When I was five and she was nineteen, my sister married a truck driver who belonged to the Teamsters Union. He drove eighteen wheelers coast to coast and rescued her from poverty. My brother never escaped it, and it was him that I thought of almost every day of my teaching career.
When my mother and I returned home the day she heard I was retarded like my brother, she told my dad, “I’m going to teach him to read. I won’t let this happen to both of my sons.”
With help from my teacher, Mom bought the right books, took a wire coat hanger from the closet, and sat me at the kitchen table. I’d stare at the one-and two-syllable words and say, “I can’t, Mom. It’s too hard.” All I wanted was to escape outside and play.
“Whack!” The coat hanger stung. I sat at that table every day in fear of the next blow, learning to read, and my mother made liars of the experts.
When I was seven, another teacher told my mother to have my eyes examined. That resulted in thick plastic-framed lenses. The blurry world vanished. “Mom, look at the trees,” I said. “I can see the leaves. They’re beautiful!”
But at school, the bullies called me a “four-eyed freak.”
Next, a virus—an executioner with a samurai sword—declared war on the valves in my heart. The third doctor we saw—the only one who offered hope—said, “He has a fifty percent chance to beat this, but you must do everything I say.”
I was not allowed to take PE classes or be involved in sports, which made me undesirable to many of my peers. Now, besides being a “four-eyed freak,” I was also a “fag” and a “wimp.” The library became my refuge and books, my salvation.
We visited the doctor’s office twice a week for the shots, and I grew to hate needles.
Although I never saw my dad drunk, he often tumbled off the sobriety wagon and fled the house to go boozing for weeks or months at a time. I don’t know how he did it, but he always managed to show up for work and kept his job. During one of those episodes, Mom sold the house to pay the property tax. By age ten, I pledged to never drink—that lasted until Vietnam.
When Dad was too sick to keep swilling booze, he returned to the moldy apartment my mother had rented in a shabby part of Azusa. By then, to feed us and pay the rent, she was working in the laundry at The City of Hope.
Threatened with divorce, dad stopped drinking, and they managed to buy another house in Glendora across the street from an orange grove.
Uncle James, Dad’s older brother—also an alcoholic—came to visit, and said, “Al, you need to get away from this woman and that idiot of a kid and make a life for yourself.”
My mother wasn’t supposed to hear that, but she did. I watched her take a cast iron skillet and chase Uncle James down the street, beating the back of his shoulders and head with the skillet and warning him to never return.
The years passed, and I learned to hate school, not because of the teachers—but because I was invisible to the girls I was attracted to.
When my teachers ignored the four-eyed, faggot, wimpy retard in the back of the classroom, I took advantage of it by reading all the fiction I wanted—Norton, Heinlein, Asimov, Louis L’Amour, Tolkien, Hillerman, Dick Francis, and many more. Books were my friends. By now, I have read thousands.
When I graduated high school, I was six-foot-four and a hundred twenty-five pounds—a straw. From the side, I was almost invisible. The last three years of high school, I worked thirty hours a week on nights and weekends washing dishes in a shopping mall coffee shop.
Before the end of high school, my parents sat me down and said I either had to go to college or pay rent. I didn’t want to go to college, so I made an appointment to see my doctor and asked a few questions about my heart health and what limitations it may pose.
The doctor said, “You’re cured. You can live a normal life.” And in a moment of insanity—maybe one of the best decisions I have ever made—I joined the Marines to prove something.
It was at MCRD that the Marine Corps pounded discipline into me, and, in Vietnam, when a sniper came close to blowing my head off, I changed my mind about college. The Marines had put thirty pounds of muscle on my bones, and, after an honorable discharge from active duty in 1968, I enrolled in a community college on the GI Bill.
While pursuing an AS degree at Citrus Community College in Glendora, I learned for the first time how much hard work it took to actually learn something in class. Then I went to an author event at Citrus to hear Ray Bradbury talk. I walked away from that lecture changed and dreaming of becoming a writer. The next semester, I signed up for a creative writing class and started writing my first novel.
I didn’t plan to become a teacher. While finishing up college coursework at The University of Fresno for a BA in journalism in 1973, a third-grade teacher in my apartment building, invited me to read one of my creative writing class’ short stories to her students, and they loved it. After the reading, she said, “You should consider teaching—you’re good with kids.”
I was polite and refrained from laughing—me, a teacher! I was the guy who grew up hating school because of bullies and girls who didn’t see me. But the idea stuck.
After working in the private sector for a few years, I returned to college to earn a teaching credential. By 1975, I was in the classroom. Along the way, I learned I wasn’t retarded—I was dyslexic—something the experts didn’t know about in the 1950s. Later, when I recognized the same symptoms in some of my students, I doubled my efforts and used every method possible to reach them. I didn’t want any of them to inherit my brother’s lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, low-paying jobs, and long stretches of unemployment.
In the 1990s, I was on my way home from an educational seminar at Cal Poly, Pomona. As I walked through the rose garden toward the parking lot, a voice called: “Mr. Lofthouse.” A college-age man was headed my way accompanied by an older woman.
He stopped in front of me and asked, “Do you remember me?”
Most of my former students ask that question when I run into them—even in e-mails after they find me through Google. “Don’t be disappointed if I don’t remember,” I replied. “It bothers me that I can’t, but I’ve taught thousands.”
“You were my seventh-grade English teacher at Alvarado Intermediate in the early 80s.” He turned to the older woman. “Mom, I want you to meet Mr. Lofthouse. I hated him in seventh grade. He was the hardest teacher I had—but I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”
“I remember,” she said. “You never stopped complaining. I thought about having you transferred to another teacher, but decided against it.”
My former student said, “I was the only student in my freshman-comp class at Cal Poly who knew what the professor was asking us to write for our first college essay. The reason I knew what he wanted was because all of the book reports and essays Mr. Lofthouse had us write.
“Those were the hardest assignments I did before high school graduation. No other teacher demanded that kind of work from us, and I hated him for it.” He held out his hand. “Thank you for being such a hard-ass.”
We shook hands, and his grip was firm—just right. “You taught us how to shake hands too,” he said.
Wow! How about some fireworks to celebrate?
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