One Life for Many

Author: Jerry Kammer ’71


Jose Bautista treasures the moment when the teacher reached out to him, helping him pivot away from gangs and trouble.

Ramon Castillejo remembers the magic the teacher worked upon a boy named Hector, a recent arrival from Mexico whose tense struggle to adapt was eased by the teacher’s story about the noble hero of the Trojan War whose name he shared. And he tells how the teacher’s stories of the partnership of John and Abigail Adams spoke powerfully to students raised in a culture of machismo.

Cristina Galvez recalls the magical transformation of history class, from the dry distribution of fact that she had known in previous classrooms to an encounter with dramatic figures who reshaped the world.

Jose, Ramon and Cristina were students of Chauncey Veatch ’75 J.D., who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1995 and launched a second career as a teacher. For his success in the classroom, Veatch, now 62, was named the National Teacher of the Year in 2002. He received the award in a White House ceremony.

The significance of Veatch’s work derives in part because of where he teaches. The Coachella Valley, about 60 miles north of the Mexican border, is an intense, concentrated expression of the demographic and cultural upheaval that a wave of Mexican immigration began in California four decades ago and that is now sweeping the country. Most of his students are immigrants or the children of immigrants who came to work in the valley’s vast fields of grapes, citrus and vegetables.

The valley is best known for Palm Springs, the affluent city that lies on its western edge, set tight against the jagged peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains, just south of the San Andreas fault. Nearby, 4,000 windmills fill the San Gorgonio Pass like massive metallic wildflowers. Their turbines spin electricity from winds brewed when hot air rising from the desert to the east sucks in the cool air from the Pacific Ocean.

Palm Springs got its start as a sanatorium but developed celebrity cache when Frank Sinatra partied here with his Rat Pack and Bob Hope, a local resident, hosted the Desert Classic golf tournament.

A few miles to the east is Indian Wells, one of the wealthiest communities in the world, whose residents live in palatial homes along golf courses sheltered from annoyance by perimeter walls and guarded by a sophisticated private security force. Part-time resident Bill Gates was once reprimanded for teeing up in a T-shirt, rather than the required golf attire.

The Toscana Country Club’s marketing boasts that Indian Wells “began as an exclusive retreat for Hollywood’s elite, captains of industry, and American presidents.” That snob appeal is part of a pitch that offers “a place to indulge in life’s exquisite pleasures" — in exchange for a $150,000 membership.

The other Coachella Valley

Two miles down the road from the lavishly landscaped splendor of the Greg Norman-designed PGA West course lies Coachella Valley High. The neat campus, swelling with portable classrooms, looks southward across irrigated farm fields toward a horizon drawn by mountain peaks and a stately line of date palm trees bent eastward by the wind.

Ninety-eight percent of the school’s 2,700 students are Latino. They are part of the big change in California since 1962, when it passed New York as the most populous state in the union.

Back then, about 83 percent of the state’s 17 million residents were non-Hispanic whites. Since then the population has doubled. As journalist Peter Schrag noted, 85 percent of the newcomers are “something other than white Anglos.”

They come from many countries, but Mexico is by far the largest source. “Currently, in public school enrollment, Latinos are already close to a majority. Anglos compose barely a third,” wrote Schrag in a book provocatively titled California, America’s High-Stakes Experiment.

The future of the United States is tied as never before to the future of immigrant children, particularly young Latinos.

That is why Veatch tells his students they are “children of destiny.” That is why he is determined to prepare them for the leadership roles that will beckon.

He brings into his classroom a passionate mind in love with learning. He also brings an extraordinary ability to connect with students and to enlarge their field of vision.

Several years ago, a researcher surveyed Veatch’s students to gauge their opinions of him. In order of frequency, the responses were 1) He cares about us; 2) He is fair; 3) He doesn’t say bad words; 4) He keeps his promises; 5) He knows a lot.

Nita Grantham, who visited Veatch’s world history class while working for the Riverside County Department of Education before Veatch received the teacher of the year honor, recalls the experience vividly.

It was a portable classroom, jammed with kids. Grantham was thrilled at its energy.

“I was in awe at how engaged those kids were and at the quality of the learning that was going on,’’ she says. “Chauncey would take a word that was part of the history curriculum, and he would show that its origins went back to Latin. Then he would take it on to Spanish and back to English. It helped them get a grasp of the word and made the word relevant.”

That sense of excitement, of joint exploration with his students, lies at the core of Veatch’s genius in the classroom.

“I tell my students that our class is like a wagon train heading out across this great expanse of learning to reach our goal — an education,” he wrote in an essay on his teaching philosophy. “No one will be thrown overboard; no one will be left behind. Together, we are all going to get there.”

A world without limits

Veatch is undaunted by discouraging data about Latino dropout rates that for decades have hovered at around 50 percent. A generation ago author Earl Shorris described the stakes, warning that “the multiplier effect of dropouts marrying dropouts and producing children who will drop out promises a 21st century Latino underclass of enormous size.”

Veatch shuns the litany of immigrant-community woe, which also includes the menace of gangs and high rates of out-of-wedlock births, and which some teachers cite as the reason for classroom failure. He refuses to be cowed by the educational deficits many students bring to school, difficulties sometimes compounded by the shadow of their families’ illegal immigrant status.

“I say ‘Get over it,’” Veatch says, blue eyes flashing. “That’s making excuses. That’s giving yourself permission to fail. My job is to move my students as far as I can in the course of the year. I don’t mean remediate. I mean accelerate, I mean do everything I can to help the student achieve the maximum.”

Veatch has developed a lexicon of aspiration. It conveys his conviction that his students can raise their sights from the flatlands, that they can be fired by a sense of possibility.

“A teacher’s job is to be a dream maker, not dream breaker,” he says. “I want to show my students a world without limits. I want them to understand the power of democracy, dreams and destiny.”

As he explained his teaching philosophy in an essay that was part of the National Teacher of the Year competition, Veatch wrote:

“There are two words that are frequently repeated during my instructional day: literacy and dreams. Literacy leads to success in school, success in a career, and success in life. A literate person will have more options in life. A literate person has a greater likelihood of becoming a lifetime learner.”

One concise formulation of the Veatch persona comes from Ramon Castillejo: “He’s an aggressive person. He’s a person who is assertive. But he’s also a humble person.”

Veatch hasn’t been content to make his classroom for those students who already are headed for success, who were oriented toward college and career and, most likely, out of Coachella Valley. He actively sought out those who were quivering at the edge of premature failure.

At the turn of the millennium, Jose Herrera was on a course for that burgeoning underclass that worried Earl Shorris. He was an angry 15-year-old, surly with resentment and tempted by the gang life that can lead to drug dealing and a dead-end — in prison or worse.

“I started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and I made some bad decisions,” Jose says. “Then the teachers and school administrators started labeling me as a troublemaker. I was getting harassed right and left, even when I was walking down the hallway. I started holding a lot of anger, and when a teacher would try to talk with me, I was like, ‘Get away from me!’”

It was a time pulsating with danger for Jose. He was close to a vortex that sucks its victims into a brutal subculture fed by the nihilism of the Latino gangster rap songs known as narcocorridos. These ballads glamorize drug traffickers whose lives spin inevitably toward doom. They often celebrate a certain type — el valiente, the outlaw who is tough and rich and generous and cruel. And certain to die a violent death.

It was in a Coachella Valley bar that the legend of narco balladeer Chalino Sanchez was made in 1992. As he sang on the bar’s stage, an unemployed mechanic shot him. Instead of going down, Sanchez pulled his own gun and chased his assailant through the nightclub. A few months after that, after a performance in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, he was seized and murdered, and the killers dumped his body on a highway.

Dead at 32, Chalino Sanchez became an idol, a Latino James Dean.

Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones, perhaps the best journalistic chronicler of the Mexican immigrant experience, wrote: “Chalino’s corridos are about the only two figures in Mexican popular culture [who, in times of economic crisis] can consistently claim economic success: the drug smuggler and the immigrant; usually, in his songs, the same person.”

Says Jose, “When I was in high school everybody wanted to be like Chalino.” Jose wonders what could have happened to him. “All it takes is one wrong move to fall into that well so deep that you never come back. But Mr. Veatch intervened in my life at the perfect time for me.”

Nearly a decade later, Jose clearly remembers that moment.

“I was at a football game, walking up the bleachers, and Mr. Veatch was walking down. He shook my hand, and we started talking. He approached me in a completely different way. He treated me more like a young adult. He totally flipped me around.”

“If young people feel no connection,” wrote historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, “their dislocation is a measure of our failure, not theirs.” Jose Herrera’s success is a measure of Chauncey Veatch’s genius as a teacher.

Jose enrolled in Veatch’s history class and a financial literacy class that introduced him to the world of checking accounts and savings accounts. His grades shot to a 4.0. His world expanded as he grew interested in American history and government and became convinced that he could find a useful place in U.S. society. His surliness evaporated in the blazing heat of newly found self-respect and ambition.

Jose became a leader in the Cadet Corps, which Veatch established along the lines of an ROTC program. There he worked on community service projects and taught younger students how to march. After graduation in 2002 he became a Marine.

Now, seven years later, Jose is a manager-in-training for Wells Fargo Bank. He traces his interest in banking to the financial literacy class. And he aspires to teach at the Wells Fargo training center because Mr. Veatch showed him the excitement of being a teacher.

“I model my life after him,” says Jose. “He gave me the life I have now.”

An early connection

Veatch says there’s a simple explanation for the connection he feels to migrant families. He was once a migrant himself, moving continuously in a youth that was defined by the astonishing frequency of moves required by his father’s military career.

“I grew up just about everywhere,” he says, running down a travelogue that included kindergarten in Germany, first grade in France, and second-grade classrooms in five states: Kansas, Texas, Missouri, Alabama and California.

“My dad was going to all these different schools for training. He was a helicopter pilot, and they had lots of eight-week schools. If my father went somewhere, my mother took us. We stayed intact as a family. That was very important to us.”

Veatch’s connection to Mexican migrants began when his family was living at Fort Ord, near Salinas, California, the home of John Steinbeck, whose Grapes of Wrath captured the Okies’ epic migration to California. Once the Okies left the fields, they were replaced by Mexicans. The young Chauncey did volunteer work in migrant camps.

In 1968, when he was enrolled at the University of the Pacific, Veatch was inspired by Cesar Chavez, the charismatic Mexican-American labor organizer who — with a dignity and spirituality that often drew comparisons to Gandhi — challenged the power of California growers as he built a movement that became the United Farm Workers of America.

When Chavez endorsed Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the presidency, Veatch joined the effort. On behalf of the union, he traveled widely to register new voters. At a rally in Salinas, Veatch marveled at the exchange of energy between the polyglot crowd and Kennedy. As Theodore White wrote of RFK in his book about the 1968 campaign, “The grabbing, pulling, screaming ecstasy made him feel alive.”

Veatch remembers an ecstatic surge of humanity around Kennedy — mostly Latino, but also blacks, whites and Filipinos. “His sleeves and coat were shredded from people just grabbing out to touch him. His security detail was struggling to keep him upright. It was an amazing sight.”

Veatch watched in awe.

“I remember thinking: this is a man who doesn’t share their culture, their race or their background, and yet he was able to reach out to them, to make contact with them in such a powerful way. I don’t think I’ve seen anything in my life more powerful than that. It was a huge inspiration for me. There was such power and grace. It confirmed what I had believed for a long time. It celebrated the ability to bridge gaps and differences.”

A confirmation of a different sort shaped his decision to go to Notre Dame. It grew from his experiences in Germany, where as a high school student he made several trips to Paris.

“Every time we went I would break off from the group to spend some quiet time at the Notre Dame Cathedral. Our Lady was especially important to me,” he says. “From the time of those visits, I thought I wanted to attend Notre Dame at some point in my life.”

In 1972, already in the Army, Veatch entered law school at Notre Dame. When he was elected president of the law school student body, he completed a personal, political trifecta that also included the student body presidencies at Frankfurt and at Pacific. Such political energy probably speaks to the hunger for connection that grows in someone who had been uprooted so many times in his youth.

One of the highlights of Veatch’s military career was his service in Panama, where the Army conducted nation-building operations aimed at restoring democracy in the aftermath of the 1989 U.S. invasion that overturned dictator Manuel Noriega.

The Army had prepared Veatch for the his role in that effort — dubbed “Fuertes Caminos” or “Strong Paths” — by sending him for Spanish-language training at the Defense Language Institute in California. Ironically, he spent much of his time in Panama working in isolated areas with indigenous people who spoke little Spanish. Often commuting to work in helicopters, he was part of a unit that built schools and clinics, and repaired roads and bridges.

Veatch was stationed at California’s Fort Ord in 1994 when a powerful earthquake wrecked buildings and crippled highways, killing 55, injuring nearly 5,000, and forcing thousands to camp in parks or seek refuge in shelters. Part of the relief effort involved providing linguistic support for work among the region’s ethnic communities, which included large numbers whose first language was Spanish, Russian, Armenian or one of several Chinese dialects.

Veatch had shown his talent at coordinating logistically complicated events 13 years earlier, where he was a military liaison officer for the committee planning the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan.

He took two indelible memories from that January 1981 week. The first involved an event where Air Force brigadier general and Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart introduced five-star general and military legend Omar Bradley, who died three months later. The second involved an announcement Reagan made about the Americans who had been held hostage in Iran for more than a year, after the seizure of the U.S. embassy that dogged the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

“I was on the reviewing stand with the president and his guests,’’ Veatch recalls, “and in the midst of the parade President Reagan turned around to face us and said, ‘The hostages are out of Iranian air space.’ I remember thinking it was amazing to be there at that moment in history.”

Into the classroom

After he left the Army, Veatch started his teaching career with modest expectations. He thought he’d be fortunate to work as a substitute teacher while earning his teaching credential and sizing up the field. But a California district that had been hemorrhaging teachers asked him to report the next day. Veatch, divorced and without children, jumped right in with a full-time job. He taught math, science, social studies and language arts for four years, picking up the proper credential at night.

Then he was recruited to Coachella Valley High, where he began teaching in 1999. Two years later, he was district teacher of the year, then Riverside County teacher of the year, then California teacher of the year. In April 2002, after a battery of classroom visits and interviews and essays, came the big moment in the White House where President George W. Bush hailed Veatch’s influence on students who moved from the detention to the honor role, abandoned gangs to learn military discipline in a Cadet Corps, and developed a passion for learning because of a teacher whose unrelenting belief in them stirred and nurtured a hunger for accomplishment.

One of the students who accompanied him to Washington was Ramon Castillejo, who had been a migrant worker himself before winning multiple scholarships to college. Ramon still delights in the lessons Veatch taught about John and Abigail Adams.

“He put a lot of emphasis on the fact that John Adams’s wife influenced him a lot, that she was very important to what he became,” Ramon says. “It meant a lot for us to learn that, because in our culture machismo is still very strong and a lot of the girls are a little scared to go to their parents and say, ‘I’m going to go to school; I’m going to do something you’re not expecting me to do.’ I could see that Mr. Veatch was teaching us about a great leader in our country, but he was also teaching a lesson in life.”

Ramon relishes the story of Hector, who came to class feeling awkward in his new surroundings and struggling with a new language. “Mr. Veatch knew that Hector was having a hard time, so he started talking about how people’s names are connected to people in history. He said Hector’s name went back to a great warrior. You could see how that made him feel, that it picked him up. I think it was great that Mr. Veatch did that.”

Veatch has a name for that teaching device. He says he brings his students “ennobling intimacies” with an important figure of history or literature.

Such encounters provide an uplift that generates a hunger to learn more. Now Ramon is himself dedicated to creating classroom magic that can inspire and transform lives. He teaches classes for Los Angeles County, training laid-off workers to reorient themselves in the job market.

‘Definitely our angel’

Cristina Galvez says Veatch inspired her to want to make a difference in the lives of immigrant families, many of whom bring little education from desperately poor communities in Latin American hinterlands. “When he taught us about the people who changed things,’’ she says, “he taught us that we hold the power to make change, that we can go out there and make a difference.”

Cristina earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and then went to work with Latino immigrant families in Orange County. There she helped start a program called From Cradle to College, which sought to instill a sense of greater possibilities to families that had known generations of peasant labor in Mexico.

Mexican scholar Luis Rubio has written that Mexico “has become a nest of privileges,” where only the privileged few learn to dream. “The rest have virtually no possibility of envisioning opportunities different from those that their social origin imposed upon them.”

From Cradle to College was an effort to widen the immigrants’ sense of possibility, notes Cristina. “The idea was that you start to achieve success in the cradle, you start with the idea that this child will go to college, instead of ‘maybe’ or ‘I don’t know.’”

Cristina is now married to Jesus Cano, who as a student helped Veatch drill the Cadet Corps color guard into a squared-away unit that repeatedly won drill competitions across Southern California. Jesus, who once thought that his future was the same field work of his parents, served with the Marines in Iraq and is now attending college on the G.I. bill and aiming for a career in the California Highway Patrol.

In late 2009, Veatch joined Cristina and Jesus at a Mexican restaurant a few miles from Coachella Valley High. Sitting beneath paintings of Mexican village life, they traded stories of their time together and Veatch talked of his hopes for all his students. “I want to contribute to the impetus for them to be constructively, actively engaged citizens.”

Cristina nodded in enthusiastic affirmation of the mission.

Like a number of former Veatch students, Anabel Vasquez and Maribel Cardenas are now teachers themselves. Both aspire to duplicate the energy and dedication they saw in Veatch. “We look up to Mr. Veatch as a role model,” says Cardenas, “because we saw how much he cared, not just about our education but about us. He was dedicated to us.”

Because of his being National Teacher of the Year, Veatch was able to send two young women to the International Space Camp in Alabama, representing the United States in an international celebration of space exploration. “We were proud to be representing our country, and we were proud to represent Mr. Veatch,’’ says Vasquez. “He’s definitely our angel. We wouldn’t be where we are without Mr. Veatch.”

Echoing a sentiment that is widely held in Coachella Valley, Cardenas adds, “I can’t imagine my life without Mr. Veatch.”

Jerry Kammer is a senior research fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a former Northern Mexico correspondent for the Arizona Republic, and he wrote about immigration and U.S.-Mexico relations as a reporter in the Washington Bureau of Copley News Service. In 1989 he won the Robert F. Kennedy journalism award for his reporting from the border.
Classroom photo of Chauncey Veatch by Cindy Soria.