Phill Casaus: At graduation time, it's time for teachers to do the moonwalk

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May 13—It was like one of those awards shows in which there's a winner so dominant he or she should just stay on the stage and wait for the next statuette. Saves time.

Think Michael Jackson in his "Thriller" days. Think Meryl Streep when she's done a couple films that require an accent.

Brian Distlehorst has an accent, too, but his is from Quincy, Ill., a little gem of a city on the Mississippi River. A long way from Hollywood. A longer way from Santa Fe.

"When I first meet my students, I have a slideshow to introduce myself, and I have pictures of my hometown," Distlehorst said. "And my students are like, 'Hey, Mister, that's like straight out of a movie.' "

Distlehorst didn't take home a gleaming gold mantlepiece Wednesday night at the Super Scholars event put on by Century Bank and The New Mexican, but he and many other teachers probably could've received swag-bag hardware inscribed with something like: Best Supporting Performance on Behalf of a Student.

That's what teachers do, besides just deliver content. In a world where old pillars are eroding and new ones are hard to find, the people who stand in front of our classrooms remain the final, no-bull bulwark.

And let's face it. When people talk "support systems" or "wraparound services" for kids, as often as not, they're talking about one person with a mammoth penchant for caring: a Mr. Distlehorst or a Ms. Carthy (first name: Laura) or a Mr. Eadie (Chris) or Dr. Martinez (Rudy). It was true 50 years ago; it's true now. If a student has that one teacher who makes a difference or lends a shoulder, an ear or a figurative kick in the rear, the lessons last forever.

And so it was Thursday: Super Scholars recipients, some of the most accomplished high school seniors in town, were asked to choose the teacher who'd been most important and/or influential in getting them to graduation and beyond.

When Distlehorst was called to accompany four of 15 Capital High School awardees Thursday night, you could almost hear him take a big gulp as he trotted to the stage at the Eldorado Hotel over and over and over.

"You asked me if I'm sad [at graduation time]," Distlehorst said. "It's like, I'm gonna miss them. I'm gonna miss them. But at the same time, I know they're off doing cool stuff."

Distlehorst has been doing cool stuff in Santa Fe Public Schools for many years, first at El Dorado Community School and then at Capital, where its stereotype — low-income, kids of immigrants, south side — is just lazy, distracting veneer. The diversity at Cap is wide, the potential for success deep.

This is just a one-night snapshot, but it's telling: Two of Capital's graduates are headed to the prestigious University of Chicago.

One of them is Damian Almeida Baray, who said Distlehorst was critical in helping him find and select the right college, plus negotiate the often soul-numbing application process.

"He read over my essay a lot," Almeida Baray said. "[We had] biweekly meetings, and there I got to talk to him about everything. Like, he would research the whole week for us, to see what we would be interested in, what kind of programs they [colleges] have. He was a big well of information.

"He's there to help," he continued. "He's one of the best teachers I've ever had."

Distlehorst, a Spanish-speaker who teaches in Capital's gifted bilingual program, said he's humbled when he hears things like that from his students, especially those like Almeida Baray, who's clearly going places. But the teacher notes the challenge, and to an extent the job satisfaction, comes with putting in the constancy of effort, even for students who may not be Super Scholars; who may not be the most obvious candidate for senior superlatives.

"No matter if it's a rock star student or a student that's really struggling, it's the same amount of energy and attention," Distlehorst said. " 'Cause you've gotta find ways. You have to find what's the end for that student.

"I had a student that really struggled with getting to school on time, especially in the past three years of the pandemic," he added when asked to offer an example. "I was working with the student on finding a way — how do I get this guy to come to his classes? What can I do? Is there any outside community resource that I can tap into to get him interested?

"With this particular student, he's interested in architecture and residential homebuilding. And it turns out one of the reasons he wasn't coming to school is because he was building houses," Distlehorst added. "So what I did is array the resources that I had: Hey, did you know CNM has this program that can get him linked into the program where a student can work on a job site and get job experience and get graduation credits?"

That flash you just saw was the light going on. It illuminates the joy of teaching.

Mister, it's time to do the moonwalk.

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.