By Daisy Garcia, 17, Middle College HS (2008 graduate)
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I had Charlap as an art teacher my freshman year. He seemed so different from all the other teachers. Skulls hung everywhere in his classroom (Dr. Skull was his nickname) and on the blackboard he had written: “NO EATING, NO MAKE UP, NO A.C.” (Attempted Comedy, he was the only comedian in class). If he found evidence that somebody had cheated, he placed their paper on his door window with a big red “F, BUSTED, CHEATER!!” The entire school would rush to his window to see who cheated. His restroom pass was a toilet seat. We were limited to three restroom passes per semester, after that you got a Depend diaper and a “good luck.” He passed out “complimentary” Extra gum signifying that you had extra time after class. He gave you detention if you spoke when he was talking or if you were being a N.G. (Naughty Girl) or N.B. (Naughty Boy) in class. Charlap called roll like I’d never heard before. The mandated response was “NAAAAAH!” meaning that you were not there or “YAAAAAH!” meaning present.

When I heard his rules on the first day, I was laughing. I thought, are you kidding? But I was glad to have him because my brother and sister used to talk about him at the dinner table. I could tell that even though they had fun in his class they were learning as well.

He picked on me because I knew him through my siblings and he knew I wouldn’t take it seriously. When I’d say a joke to my friends he’d throw gum at me and say, “No A.C. What, did you have Goof Nut cereal for breakfast?”

But he was more than just a cool teacher. Charlap helped me examine my life. He pushed me to get interested in reading, which allowed me to see that life was more than just my surroundings in South Central. The ghetto isn’t a horrible place to be brought up but there are distractions that are easy to get into like fighting, drugs and gangs. He gave me something better to reach for.

At times that year I would walk into his class upset because I didn’t do well in English. I wasn’t a good speller. I felt I didn’t have a chance at becoming a writer, which was my dream. He’d say, “Don’t let that stop you. Just read more and you will get better.” In class I’d ask him, “How do you spell this?” He’d hand me a dictionary and say, “Look it up.” (I got so used to this that I now carry an electronic dictionary in my purse.)

Whey are we studying this?

I had Dr. Skull again in 10th grade, for English. One day after we were done reading the novel Steppenwolf, he asked us what we thought of the protagonist. Part of Steppenwolf was interested in establishing relationships; the other part didn’t see a meaning to life. Charlap said we were going to talk about existentialism, which is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice; he told us some existentialists didn’t believe in God, others did. When he finished, everyone was confused. “Existentia-what?” “Are you serious about this? How does this apply to us?” they said. I grabbed a chair near his desk and sat down. “This is stupid, why are you making us learn this?” He said to the class, “Good, that’s what I want. You guys are at an age when it is easy to get influenced and where discovering who you are and what you believe in will be crucial factors of the man or woman you become.” I thought, “Whatever. It’s just another thing we’re going to learn in class.” I didn’t think it applied to me.

But I didn’t like not understanding something taught in class so to better comprehend existentialism I decided to read a book by an existential writer. I picked The Stranger by Albert Camus because it was short. I was surprised I finished the book because I didn’t like novels. I thought it was a waste of time to read something that wasn’t factual. I kept reading because I wanted to know if the main character was finally going to be passionate about something and fall in love with the woman, or become apathetic about life and maybe kill himself.

I felt lonely and empty like the characters in The Stranger and Steppenwolf. When I was in eighth grade at Henry Clay Middle School, I was in a tagging crew and we’d tag up the school. I ditched and constantly got into fights. I stopped doing drugs, fighting and tagging because I didn’t want to get locked up. I wanted more out of life. But when I tried to change, nothing made me happy. I felt like I would always be a “failure” and that I was missing something in my life. I started asking myself: Is life worth living? Is there a God? I had so many questions, which made me want to learn more about existentialism. I didn’t understand a speck of it though.

In class I would hurry through my work to finish quickly and talk to Charlap about the books. Usually he asked “teacher” questions like: Why do you think the author …? Who is the antagonist? What’s the protagonist’s purpose? Afterwards he’d find a way to make the questions personal. He would ask me, “What’s your purpose in life?” I would think about my past and all the mistakes I had made. I worried because I didn’t think there was a purpose. I didn’t say anything to him but I’m sure he knew I was thinking about his questions because I’d be quiet.

I never thought that the questions I asked myself were discussed among philosophers as well. I thought I was crazy, that I shouldn’t ask myself those types of questions. The philosophers seemed courageous for asking questions.

I learned it was OK to question my beliefs

That gave me the courage to ask questions too and to leave the Catholic Church. My older brother Gustavo, who was Christian, had been talking to me about his faith. I liked the direct relationship he had with God through Jesus Christ. He didn’t need saints or priests to intercede for him like the Catholic Church taught me. I began to question Catholic traditions. I couldn’t explain why we had to put our trust in a priest to have a better relationship with God if Jesus was God’s sacrifice for us. I wanted a deeper relationship with God, which I believed could not be attained in Catholic theology.

One day in class I was quiet. Charlap asked, “What’s wrong Duzzy?” (one of his nicknames for me). “Nothing,” I said. He asked me to stay after class. I told him, “I am kinda afraid to tell my family that I am not Catholic anymore.” “What made you question it?” he asked. “Existentialism.” Charlap was surprised. I guess he didn’t expect students to take it seriously. He told me, “You can’t be afraid of speaking up for what you believe in. In the process you only get to know yourself better and improve as a person or the person you want to be.”  Somehow, Charlap could always say the perfect words that made me feel better.

He had become more than a teacher to me. He was a friend who changed my life. By the end of sophomore year he walked slower, his skin was pale and he began to lose weight. He didn’t joke around as much. But I never asked how sick he was because it didn’t seem appropriate.

Junior year I saw less of Charlap because I didn’t have him as a teacher. One day Mr. Strauss, my AP English teacher and a good friend of his, answered a student’s question about Charlap during class. He said, “Charlap is sick and he does have cancer. He has leukemia.” The entire room remained quiet. My eyes watered but I didn’t want to cry. I began to text someone on my phone. I didn’t know how serious leukemia could be. I thought it was curable with treatment and a couple of pills.

Each time I saw him he had lost more weight. He missed school a lot to receive chemotherapy and when he returned to school, he was losing his hair. Mr. Strauss shared classrooms with him so we sometimes saw him. I would say, “Hi, Charlap” very enthusiastically. But when he’d walk away I’d say to myself, “What if he dies? No, I’m not going to think that.”

Daisy will always remember her teacher Charlie Charlap’s love for life.

I never got to thank him

The last time I saw him, I wanted to cry. He looked so skinny and sick. He was wearing a mask on his face to protect him from the construction dust. I walked with him to his car. He said, “Things don’t look so well. I will be going under the knife again.” Then he said, “Pray for me, that everything goes well.” I was surprised because he had been an atheist but he must have had some sort of faith to ask that. I smiled because for once I knew that the man who was an atheist believed in Christ. If he died, it was going to be hard but I knew he was going to be in a better place because he believed and trusted in God. I felt honored that he requested that of me. I didn’t want to say goodbye as he got into his car. I wanted to hug him and tell him how much he meant, but I didn’t. I just shook my head because I didn’t know what to say.

When he was hospitalized the summer after my junior year I never went to see him. I always used the excuse that I was busy or that I would go see him next week, next month or when he returned. Truth was that I was a coward. I just couldn’t say goodbye.

On Aug. 11, 2007, when I was at a wedding, I received a call that Dr. Skull had passed away earlier that day. I called everyone I knew to find out if it was true. I left the wedding reception and sat in the car for the rest of the night. I cried and smiled at the moments I had shared with him—the times he made fun of me, when he gave me “complimentary” gum and the times I carried the toilet seat. I kept thinking about how much I was going to miss him.

A couple of weeks later, we had a memorial service at school. The room overflowed with people. Former students, teachers, staff, even previous principals, were there. It looked almost like a dream: a white room full of people, some crying, some smiling, and flowers everywhere. A screen projected pictures of him with his family, students and friends. Teachers and previous principals spoke, then they had an open podium.

I never told him how much he meant to me and I wasn’t going to let this chance go by. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t because as I spoke images of him came to my mind and I smiled. I said I never thanked him for everything he did and taught me. I explained how I learned to laugh and be thankful when times are hard. I even shared that I was once one of the cheaters on the “wall of shame,” but how that made me grow as a person and taught me to be accountable for everything I did. I looked at his wife in the front row and said that Charlap helped me get a little closer to my dream of writing because he believed in me. When I sat down, I felt that I could breathe again. I had finally expressed how much he meant to me.

In my bedroom I have his memorial card with a picture of him. Every time I am bothered by something it gives me courage to say, “It’s not so bad” and I smile. Other times I look at the picture and cry. It’s been a year now but I still miss him.

At graduation I remembered Charlap a lot. It was difficult, but seeing his wife there supporting us made me smile. Although I finished high school and received various recognitions like honor roll and the Charlap Scholarship, nothing was as rewarding as having Dr. Skull as a teacher. Charlap’s love for life showed me that it was possible to leave things behind—like the person I used to be. A classmate once shared an encounter he had with Charlap, which encourages me even today. He said, “Charlap, you’re losing your hair.” Charlap said, “Big deal, T.F.B.” (too f***ing bad) and he laughed. As I go off to college and study journalism, I find not having fear of the truth and life extremely powerful. I am not afraid to be distinct, to think differently or to take the time to help others. Only those individuals make a difference in people’s lives as Charlap did in mine.