18 September 2011

The Inspirational Rene Salazar

You just gotta understand… I just never was the Math person. The subject was way too abstract for me; and I much preferred language with its rules and structures. Pragmatic as I have always been even when I was young, no amount of inspiration could have swayed me into taking one of the engineering programs. That would be – in my case – something akin to academic suicide.

But let me tell you all about this Math teacher who, unbeknownst to the younger generations, was an inspiration for hundreds of others to go into the Math-based programs and whose very name is etched in blood, sweat and tears on every wall and post of the school. His name is Rene Salazar.

I have been fortunate in that – because I returned to my alma mater to teach – I could claim to have seen my own teachers from both sides of the fence. In some cases, the teachers I once looked up to in the classroom turned out to be completely different personalities once they became my colleagues.

Rene Salazar was not one of those. Whether as a teacher or a colleague, he was honest, sincere, passionate and inspirational. Simple and always unaffected, he probably did not even know he was that way – a person who did not even realize the power of his own charisma.

My first introduction to him was in my junior Geometry classes. As happens in high schools the world over, sometimes reputations precede teachers. So, we had all heard from our upperclassmen about this teacher who was supposedly strict but who was also excellent, nonetheless.

For Rene Salazar, it was – then – a decade-old reputation. He was among the school’s pioneer teachers, having answered the call of teaching rather than pursue what could probably have been a lucrative engineering career.

As one of his students, what used to petrify me the most was being called to the front blackboard to answer a geometric problem. He had this loud booming voice that could be heard several classrooms away; and even when he was leading me on to find the answers, it always sounded as though he was bellowing in anger. He was not; that much I later realized. He was just gifted with decibels. I seem to remember a History teacher who was also like that. [Smiley.]

Of course, subsequently, he realized that there was no point calling me to the blackboard at all. All those Greek terms and symbols, they were simply all Greek to me – pun intended! There was more of the same during my senior year, when we had to take Trigonometry. The sines and the cosines were just as mystifying to me as the congruent parts of congruent triangles.

I was simply hanging on and how I managed to graduate was all down to God’s grace and Rene Salazar’s compassion. He could not be faulted for trying; but, I guess, in the end he also knew that he could not really turn an apple into an orange.

When I returned to the school to teach, among my most pleasant surprises was finding him exactly as he was before I went off to college. Suffice it to say that this was not always the case with my other former teachers. Rene Salazar was as approachable as ever and among the acknowledged if unwritten leaders among the faculty. His passion for teaching had not diminished one bit; and students, like they did during my own high school days, just adored him.

He had this preference for taking on a section of students in their freshman year; and staying with this section till the students graduated. There was a certain logic to this that I could appreciate. My classmates and I had different Math teachers every year in high school; and sometimes, the handover was not at all favourable to us students. With Rene Salazar’s system, he could gradually prepare his students for the skills and concepts he would be expecting of them the following year and until they graduated and went on to their college programs.

For years on end after I started teaching, when seniors started choosing collegiate programs to attend, it was always a straightforward toss-up between the engineering programs and the medical and allied sciences. The former frequently shaded the contest. My suspicion was always that Rene Salazar’s dedication and passion – along with his fellow teachers in the Math Department – had a lot to do about this.

It was also an honour to work with him in student discipline, to which he also brought his values of integrity and fairness. When there was a particularly troubling case, it was always convenient to have him close by to draw wisdom from.

Rene Salazar retired from active service after completing three decades of inspired and dedicated service. In retrospect, he was probably way too young to retire when he did. It is unfortunate that organizations sometimes have to live or die by the rules that they themselves have written; even if it sometimes means depriving themselves of some of their more dedicated and inspirational employees.

Ever the teacher, though, Rene Salazar continued even after retirement to make his services available to the night school that was opened for the financially-handicapped but academically qualified young people within the community. Not that I even have to say it; but even there, the students adored him as well.

I still see him once in a while. What is it about teachers that they age so gracefully? He is by no means a spring chicken anymore. That said, it never fails to amaze me that he continues to look at least a full decade younger than his calendar years.

He remains the simple and unaffected person that I knew both as a teacher and a colleague, even when his achievements in life many will never be able to even dream of achieving in just one lifetime. These achievements are all over the world, people whose successful careers had been inspired by the sincerity, the passion and the dedication that they saw in their high school Math subjects.

Change the Z to K, Karate!
The Bottle




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