The usual back-to-school chatter filled the cafeteria on August 17, the second day of work for teachers. Despite the dread of inservices, teachers chatted, catching up after summer vacation.
Our principal stepped up to the microphone.
“Teachers,” she said. “I just received some very sad news.” Her face revealed her own sorrow.
An immediate hush fell over the cafeteria. Certainly we all began to imagine what it could possibly be. And then she told us.
“We just learned that Victor Alvarez died early this morning.”
Victor Alvarez. Like so many others in that room, I felt the tears welling up before they began falling down my cheeks. Victor. Amazing, wise, determined Victor. How? Why?
Students are definitely the bright spot in the life of a teacher. It’s so much fun to watch them grow as students and as people, to see their minds expand and their curiosity force them to dig deeper. We are touched by the students who sit in our classrooms every day, those in groups we sponsor or teams we coach, and sometimes, by those we happen to meet along the way.
I met Victor along the way. I first learned about him when he was living at Comfort House, a peaceful home in McAllen for those in the final stages of life.
Victor was only nine years old when he moved into Comfort House. Born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), Victor spent a year in the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston before doctors told him and his mother he no longer needed hospital care but he would not survive much longer. His mother no longer able to care of him, Comfort House opened their doors to this little boy, whose body was crippled by SMA but whose mind was formidable.
For the next six-and-a-half years, Victor watched nearly 500 of his Comfort House friends die. He wrote about some of these friends in his column in The Monitor, “Victor’s Voice.” At his services, Pastor John Garland reminded those who loved Victor of the words one of those Comfort House friends once said to Victor.
“You’re an old man trapped in a youth’s body.” In typical Victor-style wit and contemplation, he responded that while he might not be good at wrestling, he could think. Victor knew the power of knowledge, and boy was he strong.
In 2002, Yolanda Morado opened her heart and welcomed Victor in, adopting him and moving with him to the home of her friend, McAllen artist Mary Cloud.
I had the opportunity to interview Victor during his years as a student at McAllen High School. I wanted to write a story about him after learning about his painting lessons with Mary Cloud. I couldn’t help but think of how many able-bodied students choose not to use their hands to write and to paint, their legs to walk this earth trying to make it a better place. Yet Victor, his hands twisted and his muscles atrophied, painted beautiful trees, flowers and animals. In recent years, his hands no longer allowed him to paint. But his mind continued to paint brilliantly.
During the interview, I asked Victor, “Which painting is your favorite?”
Immediately, he took a deep breath to gather the oxygen he would need to respond. “White Tiger,” he told me. Of course I wanted to know why. Because it is strong, like him? Because it has piercing eyes that tell their own story, like his did?
“By all accounts,” he explained, “the white tiger should be extinct. But it isn’t. It’s just like me.” After so many close calls over the years, most people did not expect Victor to still be alive. Few expected him to journey outside of Comfort House to go to school in McAllen ISD. But like the white tiger, Victor had no plans to bid the world farewell.
Upon graduation, the Gates Foundation named Victor a Gates Millennium Scholar. When he graduated from UTPA in May of 2011, he planned to begin work on his master’s.
Now, Victor runs in heaven, when he’s not painting murals of white tigers and deep red roses. His book, VICTORious Life, remains a treasure to those he left behind. He also leaves behind the words he delivered in his speech after being elected governor at the National Hispanic Institute’s Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session in 2004.
“I challenge you to believe in your potential.”
Chris Ardis is in her 27th year of teaching, 26 of those with McAllen ISD. You can visit her web site at www.chrisardis.com.