The first time I met Dr. Diaz was at the Phoenix School District teacher orientation on an oppressively scorching hot, July morning last year. Only a week prior, I had boxed up all of my winter clothes and shoved them in the darkest corner of my parents attic, then drove my rusty, non air conditioned, 2004 black Grand Prix all the way from St. Louis out west to Tombstone country with the window rolled down. I was on a mission to clean up the wild west like Wyatt and Doc and, like the mythical bird, I would rise from the ashes of my former life and be born again in Phoenix.
Dead Poets Society ran on a constant loop ever since graduating from Lindenwood University two months earlier and like many young, idealistic teachers, I wanted to take on the world. I didn’t just want to be a great teacher, I wanted to be atranscendent teacher. I was hell-bent on becoming the Mr. Keating of the southwest. I would be an activist educator, a warrior for social justice. I would work nights, weekends and holidays righting cosmic wrongs, one student at a time. Chris Hemsworth would play me in the Hollywood movie they’re sure to make. The school from Stand and Deliver would look like Hogwarts after my first year at PSD.
I peeled my burning face from the only pillow I owned in my tiny, studio apartment off of Thomas and 30th Ave. that first sizzling July morning. I quickly showered, gelled my hair just enough to not look metrosexual and put on my new $200.00 navy suit from the Men’s Wearhouse. As I stepped out into the early morning sunshine, the sidewalk melting beneath my feet, I carefully stepped over a chalk outline of a body, passed a pair of mating cats without judging and set off to conquer the world.
Patting out small flames that had spontaneously caught fire on my new suit, I passed through the threshold of Pueblo Del Sol High on that hot July morning. After politely introducing myself to Janice, the office manager with the black, Hot for Teacher leather skirt, she pointed me in the direction of the school’s library where the new teacher orientation was underway. I was greeted by Mr. Calderon, the principal who insisted I call him Manny. He was a shorter man with thinning, dyed brown hair who wore a yellow Polo shirt with an oversized logo from seven years ago. He shook my hand then introduced me to my mentor teacher for the year, Dr. Diaz.
Dr. Diaz stood well north of 6 foot 4 inches tall and wasn’t shy about it. He was an older man, late 50’s, early 60’s. A very dapper man, if ever a dapper man was of hispanic descent with impeccable hair not unlike Darth Vader’s helmet. His teeth were a glowing white like a string of pearls and his recently manicured fingernails highlighted his clubbed fingertips. He wore a pressed, white three-piece suit from Bill Blass that contrasted starkly a red, paisley dress shirt from Hugo Boss. The sound from his ostrich skin, Tony Lama cowboy boots left an intentional echo throughout the halls that announced someone important was on the way.
The first conversation we had will be tattooed into my long-term memory for the rest of my days.
Mr. Calderon, Manny, said, “Mr. Black, let my introduce you to your mentor this year. This is Dr. Diaz.”
“Nice to meet you Señor. I’m Dr. Diaz.” He said, shaking my hand firmer than introductory handshaking etiquette dictates, making his diamond studded, gold pinky ring did not go unnoticed.
“Nice to meet you Mr. Diaz. I’m Mike Bla…” I started to say.
“Doctor.” He said, cutting me off.
“Excuse me?” I asked, looking around in confusion.
“It’s Dr. Diaz.” He stated matter-of-factly.
“Oh.” I said with a laugh, clearly thinking he was just giving me a hard time. “Sorry Doctor.”
“Don’t let it happen again.” He said with the same firmness that he was continuing to shake my hand with.
“Right. Uh, sorry Sir.” I said neutrally, unable to bring myself to actually call this guy doctor by mandate.
“It’s really good that you’re going to get to work with me this year, Mr. Black. I think this will be a great opportunity for you.” He actually said with a straight face.
“Uh, thank you?” I finally acquiesced.
Relieved that I wasn’t asked to bow, he finally released my hand and offered to take me on a quick tour of the school. The first place he led me was his classroom where, at the door, he told me I would “Get to meet with him twice a week to learn the art of teaching.” Man, this guy was something else. Who does this guy think he is, the Sultan of fricking Brunei?
Things went from odd to completely bizarre when he opened the door to his classroom and showed me in. The whole room was flashing red, white, and blue, chalk full of Americana memorabilia. What the hell was all this? Apollo Creed wasn’t this patriotic in Rocky II. There were American flags, banners, posters, Uncle Sam was pointing at me from all directions. It was pretty over the top. Now I’m a red-blooded, American from the midwest as anyone you’re likely to meet, but this was like nothing I’d ever seen before. This guy made Bruce Springsteen look like Che Guevara.
All that was a lot to soak in but absolutely nothing I had ever encountered in all my 24 years on planet Earth could have possibly prepared me for what I saw sitting on his desk. There, next to the Arizona Cardinals coffee mug and gold-plated Rosary, encased in glass, was a bright red Make America Great Again hat! Not only that, but there on the bill of the cap, written in Gold Sharpie, read:
Jessie, you’re a hero and a patriot!
I swear on everything holy, I had to feel around for a desk or something to sit down on and gasped around for a paper bag to breathe in and out of.
“He-he’s a Trump supporter? But…but…” I stammered silently.
I had so many questions. Nothing made sense anymore, up was down, day was night, white was black. I was useless at the school’s orientation that day. Different bell schedules for each day of the week, policy and procedures with no frame of reference, and a new evidence based grading system that we were forced to voluntarily buy into only got us as far as a P,B, & J lunch. My head was spinning like a dreidel. I went home to my crappy, studio apartment that night and cried myself to sleep, if you replace the word cry with drink.
I didn’t see Mr. sorry, Doctor Diaz again until the first day of school. Being my mentor teacher, I “got” to co-teach with him every day. It didn’t take long before I realized that our teaching philosophies were as different as our personal philosophies. How he did business was not how I did business, we weren’t even in the same industry. This guy was not only vain, arrogant, and worse…Republican, when it came to teaching and dealing with the students, he was also mean, impatient, and more than just a little bit racist.
Our school is a Title 1 school, which means that it’s like 95% poverty stricken. It also happens to be a mostly hispanic population, so it seemed a wee bit odd when I first heard him use phrases like, “The problem with you people is…” and “You people need to…” etc. When he would make phone calls home, the first thing he would ask is, “Is there a dad around?” I suppose that being hispanic himself, he is afforded a bit more slack than, say, me, but I still found it wildly offensive.
By October, he had most of the students good and scared of him. Hell, I was scared of him. I did my best to steer clear of him and teach as best as I could but his net was vast and far-reaching. At first I was afraid to say anything to him about how he treated our students and the things that he would say to them but by Halloween, I let a few things slip. I couldn’t stay silent any more. Someone had to stick up for these kids, and that someone had to be me. He barely even got to know the kids, that was his biggest problem, he treated everyone the same. He had no concept of individual needs, he didn’t understand that, what’s fair isn’t always equal and what’s equal is not always fair.
So one morning when Jesus came in our home room and flipped a desk over, Dr. Diaz didn’t even bother talking to him to find out what was going on. He just raised an eyebrow carelessly and passively sent him to the office. Jesus refused to go. When Dr. Diaz threatened to call the police on him, right in front of everyone, Jesus ran out of the room. I had to do something, I rushed out of the room and chased after him. I stopped Jesus in the hall and sat with him until he had a chance to calm down. When he was ready, he finally told me that he was mad because he didn’t get any sleep the night before. His mother never came home from work and he had to stay up all night with his little brothers and sisters.
When I walked back into the room, I was restrained. I didn’t march in there and make a scene or anything in front of all the students like he did. I was patient in my demeanor. I waited until lunch. They served Walking Nachos and Tamales, I had a salad. When we were finally alone, I calmly said, “Did you know that Jesus’ mother didn’t come home last night?”
“No, I didn’t know that.” He said with his mouth full of Tamales.
“Yeah,” I continued, “He was up all night taking care of his little brothers and sisters.”
“Huh.” He said blankly.
“Yeah,” I continued, “and yesterday when you yelled at Juan and made him sit in the corner by himself because he kept asking questions without raising his hand?”
“He was being disrespectful.” He said.
“Did you know that his father and his uncle got deported last week?”
“Really?” He said, wiping his mouth.
“Yes, really.” I stated, my confidence growing.
“Well, I did not know that.” He said getting a toothpick out of his white, porcelain toothpick holder.
“You know, if you would bother to get to know these kids, even a little bit, you know, talk to them, maybe you would understand a little bit more about them.” I said boldly.
“What they need is discipline, they need structure.” He stated.
“I don’t think you know anything about these kids.” I said, standing up straight, shoulders out.
“You don’t think I know these kids?” He asked redundantly, eyes widening.
“Uh…I—I.” I stammered.
“Oh, I know these kids. I know these kids alright. I know these kids better than you will ever know them!” He bellowed.
“Well then you of all people should know that you’ve gotta cut these kids some slack, they’re just kids for Christ’s sake! I’m not saying you have to go around rescuing them like that El Medico guy or anything. It’s just that…”
“What did you just say?” He asked coldly, cutting me off in mid sentence.
Suddenly I felt like one of our students. Small, helpless, petrified. “Uh…I said, er, I mean…I said that you don’t have to be like that guy…El Medico.”
“Where the hell did you hear that name?” He demanded.
“I hear the kids talking about him. They say he goes around helping the kids from the neighborhood with food and presents and stuff.”
“What did you say the name of this fella is?” He asked, picking at his teeth with his toothpick with a satisfaction that I was unprepared for.
“El Medico.” I gulped. “I think.”
“El Medico?” he scoffed. “The Doctor? That is the stupidest name I have ever heard of.” He said taking the toothpick out of his mouth and walking out of the room. His cowboy boots echoed all the way to the men’s room.
I sat down at one of the desks and tried to go over in my head just what in the mother of all hells just happened. I was shaking like a fiend and all I could do was replay that conversation over and over again. The temperature fell below 100 degrees for the first time since I’d been there. The sky looked like a movie prop that hadn’t had the clouds painted on yet and the cacti were beginning to needle. I drove home on auto-pilot, past the endless line of people queued up for St. Mary’s food bank and over the 17 freeway. At home, I mustered up enough composure to reheat a piece of pizza and “cry” my sorrows away again.
The second quarter seemed to whiz by. With all the standardized testing, the holidays, and the heat finally starting to ease up a bit, the days seemed to fly off of the calendar. Days to weeks and weeks to months and before I knew it, it was the Monday before Thanksgiving. After our little blowout, Dr. Diaz and I had kept things fairly professional. He taught his lessons his way, I taught my lessons my way and we unofficially agreed to stay out of each other’s way.
Dr. Diaz wasn’t the only obstacle I had my first year, there was the teaching too. I mean, that’s not something that should be glossed over. I know that everyone’s first year of teaching is a story they can tell for the rest of their days but teaching here man, it has its challenges. I sort of laugh now when I remember my fantasy of being the Mr. Keating of Phoenix. Events took place that were unforeseeable. I mean, I never dreamt I would have to tell 11th grade boys to keep their hands off of each other so many times. I never, in all my life, imagined that I would have to explain to another living, breathing human being how to properly use a stapler or that it’s perfectly acceptable, even encouraged to eat the skin of an apple. Certain things you could assume, still I still never thought that I would actually have to justify having a rule stating that you need permission to leave the classroom, like once a week, and have to really detail why that is a thing. Well, you know what they say when you assume things don’t you? Come to think about it, maybe you don’t.
There were small, sporadic victories followed by long periods of heartache and pain. It seemed like once I thought I got the answer to something, had some kind of epiphany, all the questions would suddenly change. It all seemed very fluid. You sort things out in one class only to have another class start-up with some other shenanigans. It’s like those arcade games where you keep hitting the gofer and they just keep popping up somewhere else and it never ends. It never ever ends.
By the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the game plan was to ride the clock out. The kids were a shaken Champagne bottle, ready to blow. They had all been talking about that guy, El Medico, who may or may not actually exist but was supposedly going around delivering turkeys to the neighborhood’s needy houses. “Try the best you can to keep the kids occupied, distracted, until the final bell rang and you could tap out like the dealers at a casino. They were someone else’s problem now.” I kept whispering to myself. I was looking forward to a nice five-day weekend with absolutely nothing to do but lay on the used sofa in my crappy apartment and binge on Netflix. I almost made it too.
I was in my car with the engine running when a diamond studded, gold pinky ring knocked on my driver’s side window. “What in the absolute, holy mother of…” I was thinking as I slowly rolled down my window.
“Hey Dr. Diaz. What’s going on?” I asked without looking up.
“Mr. Black, I’d like you to come to my house for Thanksgiving tomorrow afternoon.” Dr. Diaz said bluntly.
“Oh, hey, Dr. Diaz, I’d really love to but…”
“No you wouldn’t.” He dismissed.
“No, sure I would. It’s just that I have a…”
“No you don’t.” He said, then, “Come over around 3:30. You don’t need to bring anything.” He finished and then he walked away.
“He can’t make me do this. There is no way I’m going to his house. Who the hell does he think he is anyway?” This train of thought started as I rolled up my window. It continued as I ambled out of the parking lot and drove home. It also continued as I drove to Dr. Diaz’s house at 3 o’clock sharp on Thanksgiving Day.
“This is such horse crap.” I said out loud to myself as I started to pull into his driveway, then balked, backed up, and parked on the street.
Dr. Diaz welcomed me into his ranch style home on a quiet street off of Thunderbird and 40th St. The house wasn’t quite what I had expected. It was, I don’t know, modest. I guess I expected more of a mix between the Playboy mansion and Kid Rock’s pad but this was subtle, not gaudy at all. The front door was blood red and the chimney felt out of place for a desert oasis. The inside was clean and well-lit with lots of photos on the wall of people who were not there. There was no one there. He was alone. Dr. Diaz lived alone.
As we sat down to eat the Thanksgiving feast that he had prepared I thought about how I would go about asking him tactfully just what was going on with his family. I distinctly remember him mentioning a wife and several children in the present tense on more than one occasion. Yet here we sat, us two at a table set for many. This was not a layer of the Dr. Diaz onion that I was expecting to peel back today or any other day.
I looked around the house for clues as my mind raced. There was so much about this place that didn’t fit, simply because it was so ordinary, so domesticated. The pictures on the wall hung symmetrically and showed a wife and at least three grown sons but a careful inspection of the house showed no visible evidence of anyone else living in the house. No other shoes lying around, no other jackets hanging on the coat rack, no post-it notes stuck to the fridge, nothing.
This guy is clearly living some kind of a double life. A mild-mannered family man with no family at home and an egotistical tyrant at work. What else was he hiding? After eating, Dr. Diaz opened a bottle of Valencia D.O. wine and poured us both a glass. Ah, in vino veritas, finally the truth will come pouring out of him and I’ll get some closure to all these anomalies. Sadly, three glasses later and all I had learned were the pros and cons of the snowbirds who come from Canada to “winter” in Phoenix and the only thing I worked up the courage to ask for was an aspirin for the splitting headache I now had.
I squinted at the clock and noticed that it was only 4:30 pm when he started posturing for the door. He said that he had some business to take care of downtown. When I said that I thought I should call for an Uber, he insisted that he would drop me off at my apartment because he was headed that way anyhow. In the cozy, black leather passenger seat of his Cadillac Deville, cruising down the 51 South, I wondered what business he could possibly have in South Phoenix on Thanksgiving but my aching head had put my inquiring mind at a pause.
Back at school after the long weekend, we had to re-teach all of our policies and procedures. The students all came back with a vengeance, like a mob of banshees or something. They were off the wall going on about all the crazy adventures they had and the fact that that guy, that thing, El Medico, if that was even a thing, may or may not have delivered turkeys and other goodies to some of the student’s houses. They were going crazy about it, you would have thought J. Lo had delivered the turkeys herself. It was crazy, all it takes for 11th graders to forget everything you’ve taught them about how to behave civilly in school, is a long weekend. After Thanksgiving, the countdown to the Winter break was so on.
The 1st of December was covered with dust, but it was actually chilly, like it only got to around 65 degrees that day and it was only partly sunny. Trying to get anything productive done in the month of December is a fool’s errand, with all the dances, field trips, semester rewards, pep rallies, not to mention the testing. Yes, more testing…already. Of course, Dr. Diaz was just the fool to take on this Herculean task. He was all business, right down to the last class on the last day.
Needless to say, the students get pretty excited this time of year as well. A lot more students than I had expected were talking about taking trips over the holiday, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but I was. Lots of kids talked about movies they were going to see and what they expected to get for Christmas and that character, El Medico kept coming up. From what I could gather, about half the kids believed that he was real and about half thought it was made up. A myth, like Santa or Chupacabra. He seemed to have struck on all the holidays so far this year but apparently Christmas was his bread and butter, his pinto and beans.
They were saying that he dresses up like Santa, so as not to draw attention to himself, but instead of asking for money for “charity” like all the other Santas standing in front of stores, he would actually give out money. I heard he would give out all kinds of things; clothes, presents, school supplies, food, and yes, he would apparently give out cold hard cash to a lot of the residence of southwest Phoenix. Honestly, when I first started to hear about this character at the beginning of the year, before Halloween, I thought he sounded like a perv, if he even existed, but now it seems like he’s the real deal. A real life St. Nicholas.
As the winter holiday approached, I heard more and more chatter about this El Medico, there were sightings of him around the neighborhoods and, as stories tend to do, as they go from first hand stories to third and fourth hand stories, the legend grew larger and more elaborate. During home room, I’d hear someone say that he gave their mother $10.00 at the gas station and by 7th period, the story had morphed into him walking on water then converting it into Jose Cuervo. Quite impressive.
I asked around if anyone knew who this guy was. I thought maybe I could get him to come to the school and give a talk about the goodness of charity and giving, maybe do an interview with the school newspaper, but everyone said that he is like Batman, he goes to great lengths to hide his identity. The Monday before the Winter holiday, I started to craft a plan. I wanted to find this guy. This couldn’t be that hard. I’d always hypothesized that if you wanted to see Batman in person, just fake a robbery or something and he’d come and save you, then you could get your selfie with him or whatever.
I was confident that I could pull that off without putting myself out too much, this guy was no Batman after all. I’m sure the telephone game effect made him out to be much more than he really was. I’m sure he’s just a regular dude who gives full size Snickers out at Halloween and doesn’t make a habit of re-gifting last year’s presents on Christmas. It’s not like he’s on CNN’s HEROS: 2020 list or anything.
So I crafted a plan with a couple of the students to set a trap. Nothing nefarious or anything, it’s not like I was trying to unmask him. I was just curious as to what the real story was with this guy and maybe the kids could get a free bag of Hot Cheetos out of it for their troubles. The plan was simple: I dress up, or down, as a homeless guy on the street with a cardboard sign with the plea:
“Hungry Vet. Anything helps. God Bless!!”
And the kids pretend to walk by and mock me obnoxiously, hopefully drawing the ire of passer byers enough to get El Medico’s attention. So I asked one of my economically challenged neighbors if I could borrow some of his duds, picked up an empty tin of Folder’s and off we went.
The first day of winter break was a brisk, sunny Wednesday with a slight breeze coming from the North. I set myself up outside of the Circle K on Osborn and 35th Ave. and told the kids to go in the store, buy some gum or something, come out and give me a hard time for a while, then take a lap around the block. After ten minutes, circle back and do it again. After a few rounds of this, hopefully they’ll draw enough attention to themselves and me, that our hero, if he is any hero at all, will show himself.
The boys did a great job, it’s not like they didn’t have plenty of practice giving me crap in public, they were my students after all. They came out of the store with 44 ounce drinks and when I asked, “Could you boys please spare some change?”
“Get a job, loser!” Juan said.
“You stink bro, take a shower!” Jesus laughed.
“OK,” I said, “It’s Christmas time. ‘Tis the season.”
“‘Tis the season…to be sucky!” Gustavo said.
“Ok?” I said, holding out my can.
“Yeah, ’tis the season…” Juan started.
“Yeah?” I asked optimistically.
“…for Deez Nutz!”
“Hey!” I barked, giving them the look that reminded them that I was still their teacher.
The boys scurried off and ten minutes later they were back for round two. After about round seven, it was getting pretty late. The boys couldn’t drink much more soda and they needed to be getting home soon. They were looking pretty beat when they came out of the store for the eighth time and were sort of just going through the motions by this point.
“Hey old man, why don’t you…I don’t know, go fly a kite.” Jesus said lazily, fresh out of insults. I think Gustavo was about to throw some ice on me when a I heard loud, clogging footsteps and a man stepped out from around the corner wearing a Santa suit with shiny black boots and black, Gucci leather gloves.
He walked up to the boys and said, “Boys, you got to learn not to talk to grown-ups that way.”
“Uh, yes Sir. We’re sorry Sir.” They said in complete awe.
“Well, it looks like you boys have put in a long day’s work.” The man said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a wad of cash.
“Uh, yes Sir. I guess we have.” Juan said, wondering how he knew that.
“How’s $20 bucks an hour sound?” He asked and then handed them each a crisp $100.oo bill.
“Daaaaamn! Thanks Mister!” They all said, the enthusiasm returning.
“Alright, now you boys get on home. I’ll be around later to make sure you got there safely.” The man said as the boys ran off into the night. The man looked at me as I made my way to my feet and tried to shake away my sleeping legs.
“So,” I said, extending out my hand to shake his, “you must be the one they call El Medico?”
The tall man took off one of his black, Gucci gloves, exposing a diamond studded pinky ring and scoffed, “El Medico. That’s the stupidest name I’ve ever heard.” Then, shaking my hand, less firmly this time, said, “It’s Doctor. Don’t ever let it happen again.”