By Steve Lopez
The student arrived early, sat front and centre, and stood out in my classroom in more ways than one. I’d say that on average, he had about 40 years on his classmates.
Jerry Valencia walked in with a smile and left with one, too. He eagerly jumped into class discussions, with his self-deprecating humour and wisdom of experience. And he was always respectful of the other students’ perspectives, as if each of them was a teacher.
So I was more than a little disappointed when his desk sat empty on the third Monday night of the semester. When it was vacant again the following week, I asked students whether they knew what was up.
One told me Valencia had dropped all his classes. He didn’t have the money for tuition or he’d run into a problem with a loan application.
Then I spotted Valencia on campus and he confirmed what I had heard, saying he’d have to take a pass on the semester and then reapply for next year. By then, he hoped to earn enough money on construction jobs and have his student loan papers in order. But he said he still was coming to Cal State LA regularly to attend events or see friends, and he asked demurely whether he could sit in on my class.
Sure, I said, but he wouldn’t get any credit.
No problem, he said. Soon there he was again, back in his old desk, front and centre, jumping into our discussions on how to find and tell stories in Los Angeles — a 63-year-old junior with as much energy and curiosity as any of the youngsters in class.
For an assignment on changing neighbourhoods, Valencia wrote about an El Monte Wienerschnitzel that was “unceremoniously closed,” to the delight of some and the horror of others. Valencia landed on the side of nostalgia, calling it an “earth-shattering” development and a theft of childhood. “It is almost as if someone has stolen that childhood and replaced it with a slippery hill where everything they cherish will slide away.”
A lot of Valencia’s classmates knew enough about him to know that he was showing up for something other than a degree.
“Here he is, willingly taking a class for the joy of it and benefit of learning,” said Jessica Espinosa, a 25-year-old junior. “You don’t see that in our generation.”
On Monday night, Valencia showed up and took the final exam. Afterward, students were kibitzing, and I overheard Valencia say he wanted to stay in school until he earns a master’s degree. But it had taken him 12 years to finish community college, so he had a long way to go.
He was in and out of school, he said, subject to his work schedule and whether he had money for classes. He attended Rio Hondo College, got his associate of arts degree this summer, and then transferred to Cal State LA.
If you’re not busy Tuesday morning, I told him, I’m coming to visit.
Valencia lives, for the time being, in a mobile home park in San Jose Hills. He greeted me when I arrived and poured me a cup of coffee.
He said he and his eight siblings grew up in Pico Rivera, moved to Fresno for a while, and then back to Pico Rivera. His dad worked in auto assembly and at a brick manufacturing plant. His mother worked at home. Most of the kids didn’t go to college, and nobody finished. Jerry would be the first, and he’s determined, despite his late start.
Valencia said he was an average student who struggled with grade-school math, went to Rio Hondo a year after graduating from high school and quickly decided college was not for him. He got into construction and then the insurance industry, but he’d always liked to write and do crossword puzzles.
“And I loved to read. A lot,” he said. He read newspapers front to back.
He also loved watching Jeopardy! on TV with his mother — and he joked that if one of them ever won the lottery or if he became a Jeopardy contestant, he’d use the winnings to go back to college.
It was around 2007, Valencia said, that he got tired of telling himself he was going to go back. He told his mother it was finally for real.
“When I went back to school, she said, ‘I hope you make it, Jerry.’ And I told her, ‘I’m going to make it, Mom. I’m going to make it.’”
The plan was to capitalise on his construction experience and study civil engineering. But at Rio Hondo, he found other interests.
“He was not the youngest student,” said Grant Tovmasian, coach of the forensics debate team he joined. “But he was the most motivated and the most dedicated.”
Yep, that sounds familiar.
Tovmasian said Valencia was a great team player in forensics, encouraging fellow students and inspiring them with his desire to educate himself and live a more fulfilling life.
Valencia’s sister, Sindi Majors, said her brother was always bright, but he went through a couple of rough patches in his life.
“He’s pretty much been homeless,” said Majors, a retired electrician who lives in Visalia, California. She bought him a motor home to help him out, and that’s what he lived in from 2009 until this summer.
He parked it, he said, across the street from Rio Hondo. After graduation, he moved it to the mobile home park where a friend lived, but it got towed. When the friend died, Valencia moved into her mobile home, sharing space with his late friend’s son, Ryan Blackford-Garcia.
“He’s always been a fatherly figure in my life,” Blackford-Garcia said.
Valencia had bragged in class about Blackford-Garcia’s cooking skills, referring to him as his son. On Tuesday, Blackford-Garcia was preparing carne asada (thinly sliced, grilled beef made with marinated, grilled skirt steak or flank steak) for lunch.
There is something splendidly irrational about Valencia’s determination to get a four-year degree and then a master’s. At his current pace, he’ll be 90 when he finally hangs all that paper on the wall. But that doesn’t seem especially relevant.
“There was nobody close to my age in the speech tournaments at Rio Hondo. I really came close to saying, ‘I don’t belong here,’” he said.
But both there and at Cal State LA, he’s found all the youthful energy and academic opportunity stimulating.
“These students have no interest in degrading my presence,” he said. “They gave me the confidence that I didn’t need to feel bad about my age.”
Valencia’s grade in my class this semester will not show up on his transcripts.
But I’m giving him an A, and in the most important ways, it counts.
(Steve Lopez is a California native who has been a Los Angeles Times columnist since 2001.) —Los Angeles Times/TNS
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