By Emily Polanco, 16, Manual Arts HS
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Alan Seigel has never let unmotivated students, paperwork or a lack of money curb his passion for teaching English at Manual Arts High School.
Photos by Managing Editor Libby Hartigan

CRAP. The word tormented me for weeks last September. Sometimes it made me feel lost, sometimes it made me cry, but most of all it destroyed my confidence. What kind of teacher shows his students that they need to improve by stamping "CRAP" on their papers? My writing wasn’t crap. I wrote a good paper responding to: "If you had a chance to change your school, what would you change?" and even provided good examples of what and why. Writing was my outlet but I couldn’t write after his stamp.

I still remember May 11, 2002 at 4:11 a.m. when I wrote: "Here he is telling me and making me feel like my writing is crap. It’s because of him that I have this inability to write about anything right now. His comments really hurt me a lot."

You’d think that I would hate this teacher after what he did, but actually he is the best teacher I have ever had. Seigel is his name: Alan Seigel. He’s ruthless, egotistical and grumpy. But under that harsh façade lies one of the most dedicated teachers at Manual Arts High School, an inner-city school in South Los Angeles.

Mr. Seigel teaches AP English classes, journalism, AVID (an academic enrichment class) and Mock Trial. Despite having to purchase students’ books with his own money or argue against the censoring of the school newspaper, he does it all without exhaustion. During his eight years at Manual Arts he has cultivated the thinking, writing and speaking abilities of students who would normally be disinterested in school and become another failure from the "ghetto."

Instead of assigning tedious papers like a summary on the life of an author, Mr. Seigel is open to suggestions. He lets us act out scenes from novels and makes us write scripts, memorize our lines and perform for the class. Most people look forward to creating their own.

"Chaos. Whatever works. Discussion. Performance. Don’t get locked into the mundane," said Mr. Seigel, describing his style.

Having majored in drama, Mr. Seigel loves watching his students act out modified scenes from classics like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It’s not unusual to see a group of boys get together and play the parts of Hester Prynne, a woman; Arthur Dimmesdale, her adulterous lover, and their baby, Pearl. Our imaginations run wild because of Mr. Seigel’s lack of restrictions and that’s what keeps the class from becoming boring! His class is definitely better than other English classes that I’ve taken. It is the first class in which I’ve had to think of themes instead of writing some thoughtless book report that asks me to summarize the plot, talk briefly about a memorable quotation and write about what the title means.

His wacky stunts get our attention

Mr. Seigel’s performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God have silenced and awed the classroom. In the dark, quiet and cold classroom he rhythmically reads. Dressed in a black robe with a blood-covered face he swings a blood-drenched sword back and forth and slowly creeps closer and closer to you. Step by step in the dark, you can hear his breath and then "AHH!" and everyone jumps. Then we laugh. How can we be expected not to go a little crazy with such a theatrical teacher?

Birdman (as many of us like to call him because Seigel sounds like "sea gull’) enjoys playing devil’s advocate and the "Why?" game with us, forcing us to find the roots of our arguments and go beyond the surface. He always says, "If you make a statement back it up" and "Where did you get your sources?"

But nothing stands out like his "CRAP" stamp. It is the representation of tough criticism that I now appreciate. The first time he "crapped" my paper hurt, but it taught me that no paper I write is going to be perfect. When I re-read the paper he stamped, I realized my problem: there was no thesis. I expressed my feelings about the stamp and he felt remorseful, especially after I quoted my journal to him.

After reading my excerpt, he apologized and said that my writing wasn’t crap, he just thought that I could take it. What a relief! I was able to write again. He doesn’t stamp my papers anymore, but that’s mainly because the stamp was stolen. Yet he still writes plenty of critical illegible scribbles on the margins using his green pen. And he still teases me about the stamp by actually writing "crap" in huge letters (just to show he cares).

How does he do it?

Seeing him teach tardy, lethargic, and mute students who haven’t done the work pains me and I’m only watching. It is difficult for me to imagine any teacher doing this task daily without fatigue. I get frustrated that I can’t have discussions because students haven’t been exposed to classroom discussions. Most students at Manual Arts don’t have to speak up in any class (that is my experience at least) so when the teacher gives you the ball, you have no idea what to do. Sometimes it’s like he’s talking to the walls and everyone else is in Neverland. But his histrionics liven up the place. Once he goes into his dances and gets the class moving it’s like he has risen the dead, and I am completely amazed.

But there are times when he gets frustrated and mad, with reason. In his harsh sarcastic tone he says, "What will happen if you don’t have three kids by the age of 18? What would people think of you? And college… don’t even mention that word, it would be such a disaster, you’d be ruining the ghetto’s reputation. You might even give it a good name, and we couldn’t have that, now could we?"
Then he gets more serious.

"If you want to flip burgers at McDonald’s that’s fine, but if you don’t want to go to a four-year college I don’t want you in my class." Rumor has it that he makes students (other than me) cry and even break windows and doors at home because he makes them work. But in the end, a scolding becomes a fiery speech that shames us for not trying and simultaneously motivates us to get to a four-year college instead of the community college down the street.

He never gives up

Although teaching can be maddening, Mr. Seigel does what he can with students while having to deal with the "blobs of bureaucracy" like filling out forms for supplies (some of which won’t be delivered for about a year) or grading piles of papers. And then there’s filing reports for stolen items, and fixing the roll book that is given out before schedule changes, which means that teachers have to write in changes.

Plus he also has to deal with Code 1,000s (which means that someone around the school has a weapon) seemingly every other week, or shootings near campus every month or so. Sure, Seigel threatens to give up; but he never does and I will always admire that.

"I want each student to realize and reach their fullest potential, to understand that they are in control of their choices and that there is a world waiting for them to explore and try to understand," he said. "I want them to read great books, great writing, and learn everything they can about as much as they can, to attend the best universities and, most important, to fulfill their heart’s desires."

He has been a motivating figure, never letting me conform, always giving me literally stacks of books and pushing me to read them. From Catch-22 to Wuthering Heights, the list continues. He convinced me to attend the Junior Statesmen Summer School at Yale, and assisted me with my personal statement, acted as my speech coach and helped me with scholarship essays.

Since my parents divorced, my dad hasn’t played the role of a father. He doesn’t know about me and I don’t care to tell him. He created another life, and I moved on. My mom cared; she loved hearing about my competitions. But she was busy raising my younger brothers and knew I was doing fine. Although I missed her support, I knew that if she could, she would be there. She is thankful for Mr. Seigel because she knows the impact that he’s had on my life as a teacher, friend and parental figure.

Mr. Seigel provided me with the whole-hearted encouragement to participate in everything that would help me succeed—like a parent. He told me about contests that would help me finance my trip to Yale. He revised draft after draft of a speech that I fixed again and again staying countless hours after school with him making sure everything was perfect. Once my speech was ready we focused on projection, posture, pronunciation and speed. When the competition arrived it was Mr. Seigel who drove me, told me to "break a leg" and saw me take the $500 third place and said he was proud.

He would say that I did it alone; he’s wrong. My inspiration is "The Bird Guy." Sure, I was a "good student" before I met him; but he challenged all of my interests, beliefs and goals. At times he’s been harsh, but his questioning made me examine everything I believe and why. He sparked my search for the real me and every question brings me closer to figuring out who I am. He has made me better both as a student and person.

Through every obstacle I have encountered since I met him, Mr. Seigel has always been there for me. He even helped me edit an essay that got me $16,000 for college. I think he’s crazy for doing so many different things, but I am glad he cares enough to help students take initiative in their education. Or as he sees it, "Unfortunately, I keep thinking I have to do more—kind of like Schindler the list guy. If I could I’d add full-time drama, and a bunch of other stuff."

To me, it’s not "unfortunate" even though I sometimes think he wants to kill me with loads of work and AP classes. I know that he wants me to be able to compete with others—no matter where they are from. Mr. Seigel gave me what Timothy Mouse gave to Dumbo when he felt he couldn’t fly on his own—friendship and encouragement. Thank you. What else is there to say?