Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mayor Rips Former School Board Member

While San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is tweeting he has balanced the city budget, San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos hopes to do the same tonight as the city council is slated to approve a new budget for the next year.

The cities budget in some ways is similar to that of many of its citizens. A little belt-tightening here and there and for hope for the best to survive each month. Like San Leandro, many are just an unforeseen catastrophe away from major turmoil. Rising as one of the most vociferous voices of fiscal oversight is former school board trustee Stephen Cassidy, who has hounded the mayor in recent weeks speaking in the city council chambers, writing emails and penning a measured critique of San Leandro's budgetary future. He wrote of the mayor's leadership, "He fears honest conversation may offend some groups. Mayor Santos has placed his perceived political self-interest ahead of the best interest of San Leandrans."

During an interview last Wednesday, the normally laid back Santos, who is known to be unusually accessible, urged for a sense of comity in public discourse, albeit with a sharp jab of his own for Cassidy.
People can vent, but my only bottom line is show respect. I'll respect you and you respect me. You hear it even from Steve Cassidy--who should know better. Here's a guy who was on the school board for four years and they had a deficit like we've had a deficit. In fact, he's no longer writing to me because I wrote him a memo saying, 'you couldn't even balance your school budget and you're coming over here and telling us how to balance our budget?' You know they get mad at you. I'm going to get you. But they have a right to vent but they should respect me and I'll respect you. I think respect might be something missing in all of this.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

People Splash Back; Pool to Stay Open

Amid fierce public outcry, San Leandro's Farrelly Pool will likely entertain splish-splashy children and sunbathing parents this summer. Mayor Tony Santos said yesterday, the city will likely raised fees charged to swimmers while urging the recreational pools in the area to subsidize the roughly $70,000 shortfall between keeping the it open and shuttering it indefinitely.

After numerous email and petition drives, in addition to numerous public outcries for keeping the pool open, the city seems to have heard the voice of the people clearly despite a hemorrhaging budget. According to Santos, the cities budget staff has recommended slashing more of the budget than the city council has been willing to absorb. "Of course, we need to be held accountable to the people," Santos said. Swimming fees currently at $2.50 for children and $3.50 for adults would increased by $1.50. The issue will likely be resolved during the next session of the city council June 1.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


By Steven Tavares
The Citizen
With the failure of four of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's propositions, the state will likely tap already dwindling property taxes from cities and counties to the tune of $2 billion to ease the state's budget shortfall.

As a consequence of the nation's lengthy recession, cities like San Leandro, already scrimping and stretching revenues, face even more tightening of their purse strings. Tuesday's unveiling of the city's fiscal budget predicts a shortfall of nearly $4 million for the next year. The city plans to borrow from the general fund, which in itself is nearly depleted with even more tumultuous budget scenarios on the horizon.

The governor's propositions, designed to reduce California's budget woes, were overwhelmingly defeated and as a consequence San Leandro could be on the hook for $1.8 million to the state in the form of a short term loan.

Mayor Tony Santos, sounding defiant, charged lawmakers in Sacramento of failing to keep the state's house in order. “Keep you hands out of our budget,” he said Tuesday night, “They are not doing their job to fix their budget.”

If lawmakers choose to siphon money from municipalities, they plan to repay cities within three years with interest, yet nobody knows what that rate will entail.

Tuesday's budget, which could be finalized June 1, already features possible cuts in 49 city jobs, which include 26 full-time positions. Finance Director Perry Carter says the goal is to avoid laying off any full-time positions, while he guesses a number of part-time jobs will be reduced in areas such as the library.

The budget could also exacerbate the reduction of city services such as library branches and popular recreational spots around the city such as the possible suspension of services at Farrelly Pool. Regardless, the city faces tough decisions with many facing fierce opposition from the public. A few council members discuss the need to better prepare the city for the likelihood of a worsening financial situation next year and beyond.

“I'm concerned next year will be much, much more worse and we haven't done anything to prepare the public,” said Vice Mayor Joyce Starosciak. Councilwoman Ursula Reed also added, “Next year, we won't be worrying about closing not just Farrelly Pool, but all of them,”

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

'My Brother loves it'; Girl asks Council to keep Pool Open

A little girl named Lucinda stood before the San Leandro City Council without trepidation. Wearing a tiny light green hoodie, she stood wrapped around the leg of her father who was stating the case to keep Farrelly pool open. The little girl alternately faced the council members and mugged for the unusually large audience Tuesday night.

In her hands she clutched her speech scribbled in large blocky red letters. The small piece of paper was worn and crinkled, but showed little sign of revision. When her father finished, she stepped to the microphone, spoke upwardly and said:

"Don't close Farrelly pool. My brother is two. Can you leave it open? The teachers are great. I've been going there six years and my brother loves it." Short and sweet. Another young girl even smaller than Lucinda also spoke confidently about keeping the pool open while all but Councilman Bill Stephens looked quizzically at the girl. Vice Mayor Joyce Starosciak oddly cocked her head to one side as if she were thinking, "what a strange little human."

Aside from both girls urging to keep the pool open, there was one telling link between what they both said rooted in a child's inherent quality of selflessness. Their pleas to the council were not for their self-interests as much as they both worried about their younger siblings ability to frolic in the water on some future steamy summers day.

City Manager Stephen Hollister acknowledged the pool costs the city $115,000 a year to operate against an estimated $45,000 to maintain it if services were indefinitely suspended. Mayor Tony Santos wondered whether the difference could be made up by raising already low fees to use the pool. Normally, raising fees on basic city services is inadvisable as a matter of precedent, yet the difference here is minuscule in the grand scheme of the city's budget problems. These two young girl's selfless acts should be an example to the "big kids" in our city government--start looking out for those younger than you.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Play Political Hard Ball with Sutter

I'm not a political advisor, but I play one on the Internet. That being said, I cannot fathom why the mayor or anyone on the city council has failed to take the San Leandro Hospital issue by horns. The public is craving it while there is nearly zero political risk in hammering home a rhetorical firestorm.

Many times a political issue scream for a clear juxtaposition between good guys and bad guys, yet the leadership in San Leandro seems too timid to don a white hat. Within the national political narrative of economic collapse at the hands of alleged greedy and corrupt corporations we have Sutter Health who fit nicely within in this script. How hard is it to paint Sutter as a dark entity denying health care to the poor and destitute at the same time risking the lives of the city's elderly?

This ineptitude of leadership is one of the reasons why two members of the Alameda Board of Supervisors found little problem attacking the city council, but they may have thought twice if there was a member boldly standing up for San Leandro. Supervisors Haggerty and Miley would relent if someone portrayed them as enablers for Sutter Health.

There is simply no reason none of the city's elected officials have stood out front on this issue. Politics is about people, but it is also about collecting power. Do none of these councilmen dream about higher office than their present position? It would hardly be a negative to be the person who fought valiantly to save our hospital, whether it was successful or not.

The people of San Leandro have voiced frustration over the council and mayor's perceived impudence. Can they achieve any real action on their own? Possibly not, but their hard-edged rhetorical language can only help. There is not a group of people in favor of closing the hospital, therefore, little fallout would be expected.

San Leandro needs at least one of their leaders to stand in front of the cameras and voice their anger over the probably closing of San Leandro Hospital. They need to rally the city with their words replicated daily in the newspaper and online. Take a stand and , by the way, when The Citizen asks for an opinion piece on the subject, it is not just a favor, but a record of your fervent belief in making a difference.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Obama names former San Leandro Official for U.S. Treasurer

Get ready to see the name Rosa Rios adorning your next one dollars bills. President Barack Obama has nominated the former San Leandro development official to be U.S. treasurer, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Rios previous worked in economic development for the cities of Oakland, Fremont and Union City.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pressure from Sacramento Delayed Hospital Decision

The decision by Alameda County supervisors to postpone approving the environmental impact report (EIR) for a new hospital project in Castro Valley was strongly influenced by forces in Sacramento.

One of the "letters" mentioned by Supervisor Scott Haggerty came from the Majority Leader of the State Assembly Alberto Torrico. The correspondence, addressed to Board President Alice Lai-Bitker, makes reference the need to address a "legal linkage" between the future of San Leandro Hospital and the new Castro Valley project.

The EIR deemed this connection speculative and, therefore, choose to not include an analysis of its impact on either hospital. Torrico also reaffirms the concerns of opponents of Sutter closing San Leandro Hospital noting both hospitals operate under the same license in addition to a memo from Sutter stating acute care services in San Leandro will cease June 30.

"Given these facts, it seems inappropriate to treat the issues as separate and independent," writes Torrico. Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi also sent a letter to the Board the same day urging to keep San Leandro Hospital open.

While both supervisors Haggerty and Nate Miley voiced irritation over their belief opponents of Sutter were dealing in misinformation, two members of the assembly apparently believe otherwise. Torrico and Hayashi seem intent on forcing the Board, despite its reluctance, to assert control over the fate of San Leandro Hospital before giving the go-ahead to Sutter's Castro Valley plans.

Assemblyman Torrico's letter apparently heavily influenced Miley's decision to postpone any decision until June 9. The letter states many of the talking points the supervisor issued Tuesday. Miley asked many pointed questions to his staff regarding the possible inclusion of "linkages" in the EIR and notably, the potential legal ramifications that could arise in the future. Miley repeatedly urged for a "rock-solid" legal foot to stand in his motion to delay a decision.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Alameda Supervisors Delay Vote on CV Hospital


San Leandro ER Nurse Jennifer Hom speaks to demonstrators before Tuesday's Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting.
By Steven Tavares
The Citizen

OAKLAND, Calif. - The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted today to postpone a decision on the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for Castro Valley's proposed $300 million hospital until June 9. The delay set off fears both San Leandro and Castro Valley could be without hospitals within a few years.

Supervisor Nate Miley, whose district the new Sutter medical center will reside, cited a flurry of new information yet to be analyzed as reasoning for the delay.

The three-hour meeting was punctuated by a majority of Castro Valley residence voicing support for the new hospital along with sanguine Sutter officials and often times exasperated board members.

Supervisors Scott Haggerty and Miley both voiced discontent over their perception advocates against the closing of San Leandro Hospital were spreading disinformation.

“I just wish we could have an argument based on facts and stop scaring people,” Haggerty said. While Miley more than once told the audience he was doing all he could to hold back his temper from flaring. “Some people should know better,” he said referring to the assertion the closing of San Leandro Hospital is linked to the building of the new Castro Valley hospital.

It was the second day in row both Haggerty and Miley voiced considerable anger in the board chambers. Yesterday, while referring to a letter Monday from the San Leandro City Council that urged for continued service at San Leandro Hospital, Haggerty theatrically threw the letter in a waste basket while Miley unbraided San Leandro City Councilman Michael Gregory for not knowing the intricacies of government.

Eden Medical Center CEO George Bischalaney responded to the delay in approving the EIR by striking an ominous tone. “Any delay is a problem. Candidly, who knows beyond that,” he later added, “I cannot assure you it will pull through.”

The band of hardy opposition to the closing of San Leandro Hospital Sept. 30 was detailed in a memo by Sutter last week and seemed to only increase the sense of urgency. Protesters with the California Nurses Association demonstrated before the meeting with pickets sign and chants. San Leandro Hospital ER Nurse Jennifer Hom who addressed the crowd said, “We're not going down without a fight. I don't see how closing our hospital will help anyone and severely impact Eden.”

Part of the controversy stems from the EIR choosing to not to include an assessment of a “linkage” between the closing of San Leandro Hospital by Sutter and the new Castro Valley project. Board members refused to make the legal connection between the two hospital which are operated by Sutter under the same license while opponents of the hospital closing believe they see it plainly by presence of numerous emotional pleas to the board.

While noting the board was “conceding” nothing about the connection Miley and Supervisor Gail Steele made measured remarks urging for all new information to be accessed before putting the EIR to a vote.

Sutter officials declined comment, but bristled at suggestions the health provider has a record of shutting down hospitals in impoverished areas. Opponents enthusiastically refer to thwarted efforts by Sutter to close St. Luke's in San Francisco and a facility in Santa Rosa as proof of their intentions. At one point when San Leandro City Councilman Jim Prola leveled this charge, a Sutter official turned and defiantly said, “name one.”

Critics have labeled Sutter's closed door meetings with Alameda County with a wary eye and possibly in an era where belief in corporation is at an all-time low also suspect the non-profit medical provider seeks higher profits in more upscale Castro Valley over the often times indigent patients common at San Leandro Hospital.

CLICK HERE to listen to audio from today's hearing

Alameda County Supervisor Offers to Lobby Sutter

Alameda County Board of Supervisors Scott Haggerty again took a few hearty shots at the San Leandro City Council a day after slam dunking a letter in a garbage can that urged the board tokeep the city's hospital open.

Haggerty again blamed the city's city council for failing to offer up a ballot measure keeping the hospital open. “I'm not sure why that kind of leadership is not being served by the San Leandro City Council,” said Haggerty. He cited a similar situation in Alameda that successfully passed and kept the hospital open. San Leandro, in the past, has had great difficulty in passing ballot measures needing a two-thirds majority.

“He should know it couldn't pass in San Leandro,” said San Leandro City Councilman Jim Prola. Only one-third of the patients at the hospital are from San Leandro with the rest coming from Oakland and surrounding areas, according to Prola. Last year, the council failed to get a parcel tax measure to add more policeman to pass. That measure garnered 56 percent.

A game of political hot potato seems to be forming as to who will be blamed for one or both of the hospital closing. Haggerty's concern is political blowback. He believes the San Leandro Hospital decision does not rest with the board while, opponents see the board as either the part of the problem or the only entity that can save the hospital.

“It's akin to Russian Roulette,” said Haggerty, “We may not lose one, but two hospitals." The unabashedly gruff Haggerty though was very candid, probably a bit too forthright.

At one point, he oddly seemed to inflame uncertainty rather than quell it when he twice mentioned Oakland's Highland Hospital as the health care facility the county would close, if, indeed, it were planning to close one.

Most shocking of all, under the eyes of open government, Haggerty seemed to be offering officials from Sutter to lobby on their behalf assuring the them that two-thirds of the speakers supported the hospital and offered to personally speak to upper management.

One woman in the audience wondered aloud why Haggerty didn't just display the piles of money Sutter must have given him to say that.


Psychologists will tell you there is no way to predict what people will do under intense pressure. Some will berate others. Some will harm others and some will attempt to control anger bursting at the seams.

Somebody put restraints on Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley. He's actually pleading for it. One day after attacking the integrity of San Leandro City Councilman Michael Gregory from the board dais, he continually told those in attendance how hard he was trying to stymie his apparent explosive temper. At one point challenging people to vote him out of office.

He went on to bizarrely described himself as a “58-year-old man who is not intimidated by anyone.” The remark was similar to an infamous YouTube video of the Oklahoma State football coach who attacked a reporter he felt wrote a derogatory article on one of his players by yelling, “I'm a man! I'm 40!”

C.V.: The Center of Architectural Beauty?

On of the most absurd comments made during today's board meeting seemed innocuous to many but not to most Castro Valley residents.

An official from Sutter told the board of supervisors Castro Valley deserves an “iconic” building like the planned $300 million hospital.

Despite a few sarcastic comments that renderings of the hospital and a video screened before the audience looked like “a four-star Four Season” the building does look impressive, but does make you wonder whether the lounge would serve beer and cocktails.

There's a problem though. Residents of Castro Valley have been adverse to anything remotely iconic in the town for decades. In the 1990s, an eye doctor painted his building located just off Castro Valley Boulevard and Redwood Road a bold shade of deep purple. For unknown reasons, the office received death threats presumably by people against the musician Prince.

Residents followed that up by protesting a large sign on Redwood Road welcoming visitors exiting from the 580 freeway. It was designed to give the town a focal point, but was later uninstalled.

These are the people who deserve beautiful architecture? There's hope, though. The French didn't take to the Eiffel Tower at first.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Join the Revolution in Local Media!

READ The Citizen



The thirst for the news has never been greater in the history of human knowledge, yet mega-media corporations are gutting local newsrooms. Without them, the free flow of information used to counteract the wheels of bad government are gone.

The East Bay Citizen hopes to bring the power of information back to the people by allowing them to help shine the light of truth on government while also disrupting the pernicious actors who attempt to disrupt the good intentions of honest politicians.

The profession of journalism will never die, but with the rise of bloggers and social media web sites, the future lies within the passionate and civic-minded to present their informed and nuanced opinions without the traditional gatekeepers of the newsroom setting the agenda.

I look forward to the debate.

Steve Tavares

Friday, May 8, 2009

Johnny D & the Demons of his Mind

There's a fine line between genius and cognitive instability. John Dalcino wowed audiences in his youth until the life-altering symptoms of mental illness took it all away from him. Now, only the music brings order to his beautiful mind.

San Leandro resident John Dalcino says he takes 22 different medications to alleviate his mental illness.

By Steven Tavares

The Citizen
When John Dalcino’s short, thin fingers first hit the slick, white keys of a piano the room brightens. The demons go away and tranquility and grace fills his troubled mind. “His eyebrows would raise and it was like he wasn’t there. He has this third eye that channels the music. If you looked at him straight in the eye while he’s playing, it was like he was looking at God. All he was seeing was the music in his head,” said rapper Shock-G, formerly known as Humpty Hump of the 80’s Bay Area hip-hop group Digital Underground.
Shock-G first met Dalcino in the early 1980s when he sold keyboards at a local music shop on East 14th Street in San Leandro.

Dalcino had a studio in his home at the time that was stocked with some of the best music equipment available, said Shock-G.

"He had the hippest, most beautiful studio in the Bay,” said Shock-G.

Before Digital Underground fully formed they cut their teeth at Dalcino’s home, bouncing around rhymes and rhythms in a genre of music that was set to explode upon the nation’s consciousness.

“Back then there wasn’t many people rapping in the Bay Area yet,” said Shock-G, “Hammer was getting up there, but most were just getting started.”

While artists like Shock-G, Tupac Shakur and M.C. Hammer were gaining a large following, the career of John Dalcino didn’t falter because of the standard music stereotypes of drugs, booze and women, in his case, something fundamental was holding him back: his mind was sick.

They say there’s a fine line between genius and insanity and Dalcino crossed over that line in his early 20’s—in fact, in a clinical sense, his medical records would say he did it seven times.
His mother says she knew the baby growing in her belly during the winter of 1956 was going to be a musician when he would repeatedly kick in a constant rhythm.

During one episode, he ran through the streets of San Leandro in front of a group of girls naked. Soon afterward, he was sent to a mental hospital for the first time.

When Dalcino was born, he was a quick learner.

“At six months old, I took John to the doctor and the doctor said, ‘Look at that. He has perfect control. So I put him on the toilet and he was potty trained. Nobody could believe it,” said Carolyn Dalcino.

By age four, Dalcino began playing around on the piano and vaguely discernible music started emanated from the room, said his mother, but she thought her son was too different than the other children and kept him apart from other kids.

“My mom would take the keyboard cover and slam it on my fingers,” said Dalcino, “Everybody was outside swinging on swings and making toy boxes and I couldn’t go out there and join in on the fun. She caught me looking out the window one day and she took the cover and broke three of my fingers.”

Dalcino says he can play the drums, bass guitar, clarinet and saxophone, but is most proficient playing the piano.

As he grew up in San Leandro, he excelled in music at every level of his public schooling.

He was so good that, at age 15, he played for Sammy Davis, Jr. at a concert in Lake Tahoe.

But, the mental breakdowns that would plague him throughout his life would soon begin to make themselves known through violent rants and erratic public behavior.

During one episode, he ran through the streets of San Leandro in front of a group of girls naked. Soon afterward, he was sent to a mental hospital for the first time.

“I was 20 and they committed me! I walked out, threw away my pills and snapped and they put me back in again,” said Dalcino.

Through the fog of numerous medications, Dalcino sat in with some of the most famous musicians of the 20th century.

Mingo Lewis, Woody Herman, Don Ellis, Carlos Vega and Harry Connick, Jr. all had Dalcino sit in on performance when they came to the Bay Area.

Today, after three heart attacks before the age of 50, he says he takes 22 different medications to treat his mental illness and to keep his heart ticking properly.

Luckily, he says because he worked a time as a garbage man, the local Teamsters union foots the bill for most of his medication that cost $3,450 a month.

As he orders a large coffee with eight shots of espresso, a customer in the coffeehouse raises an eyebrow and smiles.

The barista, Jose, says they limit the amount of shots of caffeine for health reasons, but he’s taken an order of nine before.

It’s clear, though, that without music, Dalcino’s eccentricities even show in his coffee order. Sitting at a corner table, sipping his liquid defibrillator, the need for music’s mathematical order reveals itself.

It’s his habit to unload all his personal effects on the table in front of him. As if he’s placing the objects in a row similar to how a composer would place notes on a sheet of music.

To his left he places a worn, black wallet bulging with plastic cards, photos and raggedy pieces of small paper.

Next to that, placed slightly above the wallet, his keys. Next to that, again slightly higher than the keys, he places a blank compact disk, next to that slightly lower on the scale he counts out 10 one-hundred dollar bills, followed by 10 fifties and then 10 twenties placed as the low as the wallet.

The music in his head doesn’t flow as well as it once did. He says he barely plays the piano much anymore.

Walter Felis, a former tenant of one of his mother’s duplexes, says most of the time he doesn’t make any sense when he’s talking to you, just these long speeches that might mean something to him, but not to anybody else.

At the coffeehouse, he would end cogent answers to questions with peculiar non sequiturs, including a date witht Paris Hilton next week and story of dining with a local musician.

“I told him, you’re coming to my house for dinner. He said, ‘I didn’t know black people ate with white people’. I said, shut the f--- up and eat your pasta,” blurted Dalcino.

“When he starts playing the keyboards, he’s like Mozart,” said Felis.

“He used to be smooth back in the day,” said Shock-G, “Now, he plays like he talks, but in his music I can still hear genius.”

Music has always been his safe house from a world that seems too foreign for his ailing psyche to handle.

“When I get into a zone, everything is easy for me because I don’t have to talk,” said Dalcino.

“Stan Getz told me, some night it’s s--t and other nights it’s magic and I could never get away from that. Music is a drug,” says Dalcino.

It’s the only drug in his medicine cabinet that makes him feel himself.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Leming Learns A New Lesson

Chuck Leming was a 'C' student who became Alameda County's Teacher of the Year, but during his crowning year he lost a child and vowed to not lose any of his students. This is a story of a educator teaching and learning the lessons of life.

By Steven Tavares
The Citizen
On any given day, a student in one of Chuck Leming's classes can be subjected to a barrage of office products. They fly through the air with a litany of biting one-liners tagging along for the ride.

They can come at any moment's notice. It's a war zone, but the students don't see it as such. It's far better than sitting to a constant droning about mathematical principles. Leming, in fact, thinks math is boring

A student in the back row wants Leming to go over a question she saw the night before on television's "Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" After discussing the problem, as is the custom on the TV show where the contestant wagers money against his answer, another student wearing entirely black yells, "Would you bet your paycheck?"

"Since you don't have as much as me, I won't take that bet," said Leming.

"How much do you have?" said another boy with a black hooded sweatshirt.

Sidestepping the question for moment, Leming says to the boy, "How much do you have in your savings account?"

"Between three and four grand."

Leming quickly shoots back to the delight of some of the boy's buddies sitting around him, "Then you don't have enough to match my paycheck."

Leming's been around, so he knows the difference between educational babble and what it takes in the real world. It's quite ironic, but common, that your teacher--the supposed smartest person in a student's life, wasn't such a good student himself.

"In school I cheated, lied and only went there for the social aspect and girls,” says Leming. In high school, Leming was a sweet-swinging outfielder for his baseball team. Although he couldn't field a lick. A few pro scouts visited his games in Grass Valley to watch Leming and some other players, but his nascent career on the diamond was cut short at 16 when the coach caught him smoking.

“The coach said he was going to punch my lights out. I was cocky back then.”

Like some of the student's he sees today, school just wasn't for Leming during his teenage years.

“There’s a purpose in life and education was not part of it for me then,” he said.

His brother was different. He breezed through school as the quintessentially perfect older brother, but Leming wasn't hearing the message. His father told him: “My boys are going to college. He saw my report card and said, ‘That’s a C, that means average. I don’t have sons that are average.’ I said, 'You do now.’”

In fact, he fit the definition of the word exactly when he graduated from high school in Los Angeles, he was 175th out of 350 students; dead smack in the middle, the model of mediocrity. While some college student's of the tumultuous late 1960's received deferments from the fighting in Vietnam, it was the average middle-class and poor Americans who did the conflicts bidding. Leming wasn't drafted; he drove down to the Army recruiting station and joined. "We were supposed to be fighting communism," he said, although his foreign adventure to the Far East went only as far as the concrete jungles of Staten Island, NY. He jokes that he knew a lot about New York City's more risqué and ribald location while serving his country.

Upon returning to Northern California, Leming would spend the next 15 years doing everything from installing windshields, delivering auto parts, selling photo copiers and driving trucks. Through three economic downturns in the early and late 1970's and a recession in 1981, Leming began to think about the future of himself and his family. What once was anathema to his being as a teenager, became the path to a good life. In fact, both Leming and his wife became teachers later in life. Leming's wife teaches seventh-graders in the Dublin school system.

“When I went to college I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what a B.A. or a B.S. was. I choose a B.S. because I knew I was half-way there. I was a country boy.”

Leming would graduate from then Cal State Hayward in 1985 and begin his teaching career at San Leandro High School shortly after, but while studying for his teaching credential he received advice from an instructor that struck a chord with him, meshed with his personality and would come to define his teaching style for the next two decades.

“If you’re able to bring your family life into the classroom, they will think about you as a person, instead of a teacher and you’ll have less behavioral problems,” recalls Leming. He would later find that assumption works both ways.

When you first see Leming, you don’t see a middle school teacher. You might see a fire inspector or a grizzled foreman on a construction site walking about the skeletal frame of a building with a metal clipboard and ill-fitting white helmet sitting high upon his head. He might be saying, “Fix that sheet rock over there and these beams are at the wrong angle.” Whether he’s a teacher or the foreman for a building’s construction, the core of Leming is to get things right and build a strong foundation, to watch something lasting and beautiful be erected.

In real life, Leming is in his early 60’s. His foundation laid long ago has worn on the outside. His head is ringed by short white hair that reveals a bald, but tanned pate. He wears oversized bifocals rimmed by thin gold metal. When he speaks the first thing you notice is that his mouth shifts slightly to the left as if the words are tumbling over his molars instead of his front teeth. With the baldness and the glasses, you might not make the connection, but when the gruff manner of his speech is uttered off the side of his face, it occurs to you that Leming being Leming is a lot like Leming doing a passable impression of Dick Cheney or Dick Cheney is doing a great impression of Chuck Leming.

The thing is Leming probably doesn’t mind the connection to the dark lord of the right, because like Cheney, Leming is a Republican. This is probably one of the few in existence amongst the rigidly liberal teacher’s union. It’s no problem for Leming because much of what his teaching style is about is born the anachronistic Republican mantra of one “picking oneself up by the bootstraps”.

“I believe this is the land of milk and honey. All the options are available if you want them bad enough,” he says.

Maybe Leming's students are more behaved than others because they know about his gun collection. He's a registered member of the National Rifle Association and own 20 guns, including a gun safe. He doesn't hunt animals anymore, he says, but enjoys honing his accuracy shooting clay pigeons, although he hasn't been to the range much lately.

While Leming gives the impression of Dick Cheney, his politics when it comes to education are staunchly moderate. Being neither a great student, nor a poor student, the accolades for those in the middle are non-existent.

Three years ago, Leming became the coordinator for a program that tries to remedy "the middle" and find those underperforming students and make the middle less middling and more a model for a well-rounded student population.

Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) sounds like a newfangled right wing program that isolates a group to battle the fight of survival of fitness while the game is tilted to favor another desirable group. But this program is different. It doesn’t take disadvantaged children or high-achievers, its core value is that it focuses on the “middle”. Its success depends on faculty searching deeply for students who might become diamonds in the rough and gives them the opportunities and skills not afforded to children who may have been raised in a household where college was not a matter whether my grades were good enough or if the college fund could afford four years of higher education. It’s a remedy for a country where the economical divide is widening at the edges with the rich getting richer and the poor getting devastatingly poor.

The AVID classes are small. A student must maintain a 3.0 grade-point average or leave the program after two semesters. AVID isn't a class like math, English or social studies, it's all those classes; a sort of Grand Central Station for all those courses that lead to Leming's wrath.
A tiny eighth grade girl named Fatima Costa is in Leming's intervention math class, that like AVID, focuses on a small group of students who are struggling. According to Leming, classes like these will be among the first to be cut if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget cuts come to fruition.

Less than a minute before the bell is about to ring, a few students milling around the classroom chatting with their friends hear Leming announce, "Anyone who isn't sitting in their seats when the bells rings will be tardy!"

The smallish girl turns, covers the side of her mouth to cover it from Leming's view and mutters, in a hushed tone, "He's so mean."

Maybe Leming heard her and maybe he didn't, but later in the period when she's not listening to him, he admonishes her by saying, "You haven't been doing that good, Fatima. If you don't do better you're going to have to go to Home Depot and get a big box from a refrigerator to live in."
As he walks away, she glances my way and contorts her face as to say, "See, I told you he was mean."

Leming has a certain fondness for these type of students, because he sees himself in them and does not believe 40 years has changed them much.

“I don’t think they’re worse. That’s what a lot of teachers will say, but I think they’re a whole lot smarter. They have so much access to information on television or the internet. The only thing is they’re not as motivated because of it--I wasn’t either,” he says

As students begin encountering problems with their math homework, one boy, slightly overweight for his age and befitting the stereotype that large people tend to be jollier than others asks Leming for some help.

"Don't start teasing me," the boy quickly says before Leming can lay a zinger on him. Leming grabs the long lanyard around the boy’s neck, pulls him close and feigns slapping his face. The boy laughs. After Leming's instructions, the boy utters in exasperation, "Ohh. H=3"
"See," says Leming, "You're not as dumb as I think you are."

After noticing too many students were having problems with the same question, Leming switches on the overhead and goes over the problem. A boy in the front row still doesn't understand. "I don't understand what you're doing?" he says.

“What are you talking about? Close your eyes and hit yourself in the back of the head because I’m too lazy to go over there and do it myself,” Leming says.

"If I was a student these days, I would be in this class," says Leming shortly before heaving a crumpled paper at the attendance girl. The girl runs out the door shrieking as the wad grazes her back.

"I had a poor family and my GPA was between 2.0 and 3.5, but I tested well. I would be in this program," he says.

He says a whopping 96 percent of all students in the program enroll in secondary education. AVID is not about churning out high school diplomas, but college graduates. To illustrate the point, when this year's crop of AVID students graduate from middle school, they will receive a medal with an inscription that reads not the class of 2012, but of 2016, four years after high school.

"A high school diploma doesn't mean anything in California, anymore. I mean, you should see the kids they're giving diplomas to nowadays," says Leming.

What Leming believes about a typical student's life after high school is the 800-pound gorilla sitting in, not only the science room, but in every room, not everyone is cut out for college, so why jam a round peg into a square hole?

"No Child Left Behind wants every student to be proficient to the same point and have everybody go to college. It's not realistic," he says, "We need secretaries. We need people in the service industry."

His version of education utopia is rooted deeply in his own life and about face he encountered in his own life. "Not everybody is into numbers and letters. There should be a vocational option with a bridge back to academics, if they decide. The way it is, now, you're left to sink or swim," he says.

The former "C" student who toiled in car parts and haulers before taking advantage of his own self-made bridge to teaching did pretty well for himself when the San Leandro Unified School District made him their teacher of the year for the 2007-08 school year.

The school's librarian, Russ Tomlin, after failing to get Leming the award the year before, surreptitiously nominated him again. Leming believed the first time he wouldn't receive the award because of a veneer of ageism in the process. The school district doesn't want an old guy as its top instructor, they want a young teacher, he believed. This time he got it, but seriously doubted he could win the state's prize. You're not going to get Leming to fawn over something just to get his name on a plaque.

Leming answered a questionnaire of 14 questions by slamming the state's credential program, No Child Left Behind and teacher training. It may or may not have ended his chance of winning the statewide prize, but he believed the Department of Education wouldn't want a winner who disagreed with them so passionately.

"Take me the way I am, or don't ask the question," he says.

Of course, he said he was "humbled and honored" and realizes there's many teachers in the district who are "equal or better than him." He says this because he thinks he got the award out of sympathy.

Not every student is destined to thrive, while not every child is destined to struggle. In September of 2006, shortly before what should have been the crowning year of Leming’s teaching career, he received word that his 30-year-old son was dead.

His son, Christopher, left behind a wife, an 8-year-old girl and an 18-month old boy. He had suffered through heroin addiction for awhile. Leming knew about it. The irony is that it wasn't heroin that killed him in the downstairs of a Philadelphia train station, but the purveyors of the drug that stalk the abuser in murky corners and creepy shadows. The police don't know exactly what happened to Christopher Leming that day. The police report says he was stabbed with a syringe filled with a powerful painkiller often used to cut heroin. The police think the attack may have been part of a gang initiation stunt. Leming thinks this story is probably true because his son tended to be a very private drug user and shooting up in the middle of Philly doesn't sound like him.

Leming last saw his son two months before his untimely death and believed he had been recently clean for the drugs. He spoke with him the day before he died and on his last day told his wife and daughter he loved them.

Leming still refers to his son in the present tense because he believes his son still with him. He's been visited by his son three times.

While sleeping in a lonely hotel room and resting his head on a foreign pillow and unfamiliar blankets to warm his body, he was awakened by a bright light. At first, he thought he dozed off with the lights on, but when he opened his eyes, the room was pitch black. It happened again. This time he thought the light was emanating from outside. Some jerk must be shining his high beams through the window. "I was ready to yell at them, but everything was dark," he says.
"It said to me that he's in Heaven and he's waiting for me and I'm going to go to Heaven because he waiting for me," he says.

Leming didn't need such a spiritual episode to awaken his religious beliefs. He attends Catholic mass with his wife regularly, but this episode made the afterlife and the prospects of seeing his son again even more real. Christopher came to religion late in his life, says Leming.

Christopher's mom kept her son's Bible and copies scribbling from the margins to her Bible. On one page she found, "To be a good man, you must know God." Leming and his wife searched the Bible inside and out to find that equation, but couldn't find it. A Google search of the phrase doesn't yield one hit. A local Catholic priest said he doesn't recall such a passage with that exact phrasing.

As Leming's eyelids begin to redden and tears start welling up he says, "He was telling me he was a good man"

"I've never been angry about his death. My wife says, 'It's because you've received God's grace," he says.

To say Leming has coped with his son's death wouldn't be honest. When a child dies under circumstances that might breed snickering, but compassion, nonetheless, a lot of doubt sneaks into the minds of mourners when the hugs and support leave to deal with their own lives.
"I think it's natural to say, 'What could I have done differently to change the outcome'," he says,

"We did the best we could, but addiction was something genetic, a defect in his genes."

One day, while driving to his gun club in Livermore, Leming passed by a line of large oak trees on the side of the road. He was just thinking, but still, he wondered what would happen if he steered his car into those trees as a way of hastening a chance to see his son again in Heaven. Just thinking-thinking, as the math teacher that he is, he calculated the speed of the car to be too slow to do anything but total it. So he increased the pressure on the pedal just slightly to accelerate the car. At that moment, the thinking-thinking ceased and a flood of rationality cascaded over his troubled mind.

"I began to think this wouldn't be fair to my wife, or my daughter, or my grandchildren," he said, "I felt it would have been selfish, but I wanted to see my son again."

"I laugh every time I see those oak trees," says Leming.

People react vastly different to death. Leming's wife doesn't like to talk about her son's death, while her husband finds it "therapeutic."

Because Leming believes students identify and respond better when a teacher opens his private life to the classroom, like a family that revels in good times, it conversely rallies around itself in the bad.

When he returned from bereavement leave, he spoke to students about his son. He left nothing out. This would be no different than a lecture on the Pythagorean Theorem. His son’s demise would be a life lesson for these kids. Some girls cried with Leming as he delivered the news. The obvious human response is usually, “How?” He could have told them anything to cover the hurt and embarrassment of a teacher’s son dying. But he didn’t, he told them straight up: my son abused drugs and because of that, he died.

Students that would be touched with tragedy easily gravitated to Leming. He held one student whose uncle was killed in long, heartfelt embrace one day in the hallway outside his classroom because that's how the grieving help others--by diffusing some of the pain from those recently struck by life's wrong turns.

That would not be the end of the conversation, despite the pain and heartache of losing a child. Leming wasn’t going to lose any of these children, either. As part of a writing exercise about a loved one, Leming decided to write his own about his son and read it aloud to the class. This time his voice cracked and tears slowly inched over the bottom lids of his eyes. A solemn sense drifted over the students; those same girls began to cry again and the boys shifted uncomfortably in their chairs and bowed their heads in respect as he read these nine lines:

I am a husband.
I am a father.
I am a grieving father who lost a son.
I am working on getting better.
I am sad that I will never see my son again.
I am happy for my son has shown me he’s in Heaven and the he is waiting for me.
I am always crying with my wife
I am emotionally distraught many nights as I talk to my son.
I am thankful for my wife and students that have held me and cried with me.

The message was clear. Chuck Leming lost one of his children; his own son. But his life work has been about saving the hundreds of children who watched his peculiar classroom antics and learned about themselves and how to succeed in society. Life isn’t perfect and families are far from it, but nonetheless, every so often, a child does something to say “I love you.” When Chuck Leming stood before a banquet room atop the hill at Cal State-East Bay and accepted his teacher of the year award a few generations of San Leandro students said thank you for making them a better person and a son rejoiced in the celebration of his dad.