– Leaning back in his chair, scrolling down his laptop and
donning a T-shirt, a blazer and thin-rimmed eyeglasses, Benjamin
Bolaños doesn’t look like a preacher. But that’s what his El Portal
students like to call him.
GILROY – Leaning back in his chair, scrolling down his laptop and donning a T-shirt, a blazer and thin-rimmed eyeglasses, Benjamin Bolaños doesn’t look like a preacher. But that’s what his El Portal students like to call him.
“He’s just an enthusiastic person. He’s very into what he teaches and when he teaches you something, you learn everything about it,” said Michael Cardenas, a 10th-grade student of Bolaños’ at the El Portal Leadership Academy, Gilroy’s charter high school.
“He’s one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had. And he really loves Shakespeare,” Cardenas adds shaking his head and smiling.
Bolaños admits to referencing Shakespeare a lot in class, even when the topic is not one of the bard’s poems or plays.
“He’s so modern. He discusses almost every issue we deal with as humans, and he does it with wisdom, wit. … He’s the universal language,” Bolaños said. “He really understands character.”
Bolaños is an English teacher at El Portal, instructing students in a somewhat traditional literature and grammar class as well as a more alternative Holocaust course. Bolaños has designed the Holocaust course to expand students’ reading comprehension, vocabulary and analytical-thinking skills by studying that dark time in history under the scope of literature.
“The class is literature-based, but we’re using primary source materials (such as letters, news articles and laws from that time period) to learn about history,” Bolaños explained.
Bolaños’ own history is what makes the 29-year-old a perfect match for the charter high school, now in its second year. A native of politically turbulent El Salvador, Bolaños and his family immigrated to the United States when he was 6 years old. Initially Roman Catholic, Bolaños’ father became a Mennonite pastor once in America, moving the family from Miami to New Jersey and later Ohio.
Looking back, Bolaños says, it took him until his college years to feel like he assimilated in the United States.
“I thought assimilating meant playing football, being smart in class and trying to be white,” Bolaños said.
The self-assured, easygoing Bolaños can recall a time as a child when he ran out of the bathroom with his olive-toned skin doused in baby powder.
“I was so excited. I was yelling, ‘Look mom, I’m white.’ ”
At Eastern Mennonite University, a private college in Virginia, Bolaños found a niche in the liberal arts and humanities. He also found acceptance as a non-white.
“The Mennonites stress the importance of understanding other cultures,” Bolaños explained. “I learned it was OK to be from a different culture. It’s OK to be unique.”
His experience at college triggered a need to see more of the world and Bolaños spent time living and working abroad in France and West Africa.
It was in the Ivory Coast that Bolaños’ life – and future career plans – began a path that would lead him to Gilroy.
Early in his stay there, Bolaños was given advice to always acknowledge the people around him whenever in a public situation. He was told it would go a long way if ever in need of help. He recalls times on crowded, run-down busses when he couldn’t get to the driver to pay his fare. He said people would take his money and pass it along until it got the driver. He was never stolen from.
“Despite all their problems and all the poverty, people in Africa understand the importance of community. That’s what I took back with me.” Bolaños said. “The culture shock coming back into America was actually stronger than the culture shock going into Africa.”
After returning to the United States, Bolaños took teaching work at his alma mater and later Bowling Green University in Ohio. He then took a job as the assistant to the executive director of the National Catholic Education Association, an organization supporting the advancement and development of Catholic education.
“I liked working there, and I believed in the mission of sowing strong values in students, but I wanted to get back into the classroom,” Bolaños said.
When he learned that a friend was moving out to California to find work in the charter school system, Bolaños figured a similar relocation might be good for him, too. Charter schools are public schools but have more flexibility in delivering curricula and implementing policies than other schools in a district.
Bolaños looked into the charter movement out west and learned of the Mexican American Community Services Agency’s (MACSA) plan to launch the El Portal Leadership Academy.
“They didn’t have a position open, but we did an interview anyway,” Bolaños said. “It was more of a discussion and a dialogue than a job interview. We talked about what we wanted to do in education and what we wanted to change.”
As fate would have it, a position did open at El Portal and, after a second interview, he was offered a job.
“Benjamin has been with us since the beginning,” said Noemi Reyes, El Portal’s principal. “He’s so committed to the students and to providing them with the tools to go to college …”
That level of commitment doesn’t end at 3 o’clock on weekdays. Bolaños is a regular at school fund raisers on the weekends, says Cardenas.
“That means a lot to us,” Cardenas said.
Bolaños also was a key figure in developing the policies and curricula for El Portal in its charter year.
“We worked a lot of long nights and Saturdays,” Bolaños recalled.
In its first year, El Portal received mixed reviews from the district, which put the school on a sort of probation. Freshman students were allowed to move on to 10th grade, but no new students were allowed to enroll until the district found that the school was back on track.
“We did some things right and we did some things wrong,” Bolaños said. “We’ve revamped a lot of things, and we’re having a good year.
“These kids are great. We have students at various skill levels, but one thing they all have in common here is that they will speak their mind. They are not shy to get up at city and district meetings and say what they think,” Bolaños said.
“That’s why I’m here,” he says emphatically, while leaning back in his chair, “to develop character.”