Senator José Menéndez asks students for questions at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.

Elected officials pretty much talk for a living. They dialogue with disgruntled constituents, adversarial colleagues, and the numerous parties involved in running a bureaucracy. Still, how many politicians would not tremble at a day spent as a middle school history teacher?

State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) seemed up to the challenge on Nov. 5, when he spent the day at Longfellow Middle School (San Antonio Independent School District), standing in for teacher Adrian Reyna. The visit was part of a National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) program called Back to School, which gives state leadership that chance to spend a day speaking directly to their young constituents, and getting a ground-level view of the daily lives of teachers.

Not a bad idea, since state legislators are responsible for funding public education properly.

Senator José Menéndez speaks to students in the classroom at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.
Senator José Menéndez speaks to students in the classroom at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

8:40 am: After a brief welcome and orientation from the school principal, the senator’s day got started with a tour of campus on the way to Reyna’s classroom.

9:02 am: Walking amid the ongoing renovations funded by the SAISD 2010 bond, we run into Reyna and his first period history class, on their way to the cafeteria for a game of tug-of-war. Reyna plans to use the game as a metaphor to illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of the British and American armies during the American Revolution.

Sen. José Menéndez help the Longfellow MS "colonists" in tug-of-war. Photo by Bekah McNeel
Sen. José Menéndez help the Longfellow MS “colonists” in tug-of-war. Photo by Bekah McNeel

As we watch the teams take their places, Reyna pulls the biggest students away from one side, gives added incentives to the other side, and changes the rules to illustrate his point, and I have to admit, the metaphor is not just a silly stunt to pander to the kids. His metaphor works.

He invites Menéndez to join the colonists.

9:11 The colonists handily win the tug-of-war (luckily for Reyna’s metaphor).

9:25 The tour continues into the school kitchen, a brand new space with sparkling equipment. The kitchen opened this year, and the singular point of pride mentioned by our hair-netted tour guide was the lack of fryer. Everything was steamed, baked, or boiled. Menéndez shared her excitement, turning to me, the token member of the press.

“No fryer! Put that in your article!” Menéndez exclaimed.

Sen. José Menéndez visits the new cafeteria kitchen at Longfellow MS. photo by Bekah McNeel
Sen. José Menéndez visits the new cafeteria kitchen at Longfellow MS. photo by Bekah McNeel

9:41: We settle in to Reyna’s classroom during his conference period so that he can brief the senator for what’s ahead.

Menéndez has committed to the day in earnest, taking on two of Reyna’s 8th grade US history classes as well as “Teen Leadership” and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) classes. While the senator won’t necessarily have to cover the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) aligned subject matter or curriculum for the day, he did spend a full day attempting to inspire classrooms full of 13 and 14 year olds.

Reyna himself is the son of a former state representative. He grew up around government, and interned with Menéndez’s predecessor, Letitcia Van de Putte. He’s passionate about the subjects he teaches, and frustrated that kids are arriving in his 8th grade class with no meaningful exposure to US history, government, or what we would call social studies. He had to teach many of them how to read a map.

“They don’t get a whole lot in elementary school,” Reyna said.

Without ongoing conversation to help kids understand the relevance of issues and policies, it’s hard to make them care on command. For Reyna it’s difficult enough to spark their interest in a classroom setting, but he’s more concerned with what happens when these kids become adults with the right to vote.

“Involvement in government and politics had to be a really organic thing,” Reyna said.

Senator José Menéndez discusses the importance of education to students at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.
Senator José Menéndez discusses the importance of education to students at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.

Part of that organic growth is tangibility. Having the senator in the classroom is the most tangible way for him to materialize the abstract concepts of government and citizenship. Reyna also is working on a field trip to the Capitol in Austin, but right now he’s not sure it will be possible. It isn’t just money. Time out of school is time away from the TEKS, away from test prep, away from the extensive list of dates and names the kids could be tested on.

Which inevitably leads the conversation to the cost of high stakes testing. Over-testing is an issue of high priority for Menéndez who filed HB 1302 in the last legislative session to reduce the number of state required exams to those required by the federal government.

He says that the issue became personal to him when his own eight-year-old was throwing up from anxiety the day before standardized testing.

“What the hell?!? These kids are eight years old!” said Menéndez, with a flash of parental wrath.

A couple of other teachers and staff soon gather to contribute to the conversation, using their conference period to talk policy with the lawmaker.

All agreed that tests should be diagnostic, not punitive, and that the over-testing was killing any spirit of inquiry a student might have had at birth.

10:32 am: Sen. Menéndez’s first class of the day arrives, and he jumps in to US history as a living example of government in action. He makes it through the next two class periods, and lunch, back in the fry-free cafeteria.

1:31 pm: Teen Leadership class commences with Reyna announcing that roughly half the class is scheduled to go to an informational session for the SAISD early college high schools, St. Philip’s and Travis. The kids are clearly torn, not wanting to miss the chance for face time with the senator. Reyna gives them the option, but encourages them to go. Students still look hesitant until the senator voices his support for the early college programs.

“You should be thinking about your options,” Menéndez said.  

Senator José Menéndez points to the rewards of earning a good job to students at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.
Senator José Menéndez points to the rewards of earning a good job to students at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

As consolation, he reminds the kids that his office is now at Wonderland of the Americas mall, and that they are welcome any time to come ask the questions they need to ask.

With the remaining students, Menéndez tells his own education story, from a kindergartner with no English, to the beginning of his political career as a 24-year-old on the San Antonio zoning commission. The senator opens the invitation for students to apply as interns once they are old enough, to kick off their own political careers.

He tells the students that every level of education they attain increases their menu options. He compares a high school to the kids menu, and a bachelors degree to a buffet.

“Think about what gives you the opportunity to do what makes you happy,” said Menéndez.

Rather than look at each degree only in terms of salary, though he does point out the earning potential of each degree over a life time, he talks about jobs that pay in quality of life.

The senator’s parents worked hard as immigrants with limited education, and he remembers how their house felt more like a hotel. The whole family worked in the audio hardware store, and they didn’t socialize much with other families. He felt peculiar at school, which ended up working in his favor as he sought acceptance through good grades and athletics. When he was considering careers, he wanted to be in a position to help others, not just getting by. He considers himself lucky to have a job that would allow him to be in the classroom for a day.

Senator José Menéndez speaks to students in the classroom at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.
Senator José Menéndez speaks to students in the classroom at Longfellow Middle School. Photo by Scott Ball.

Like every class that day, question and answer time is more frank and honest than one might expect.

Kids ask genuine questions, asking him to explain his job and what he has and has not been able to accomplish. He lists legislation that he’s proud of, talks about bills that he wants to revisit, and issues dear to his heart. He says he wants to figure out how to spend more time with his teenage kids. He’s honest when he can’t remember inspirational moments from his own timeline.

One student asks a question about food stamps. After answering, Menéndez senses a story behind the question and gives the entire class his office number, explaining legislative inquiry and how it will help him get through to government agencies faster than they may be able to.

“You can call any time. Or have your parents, or your grandparents, or your tíos and tías call me,” Menéndez said.

Students leave Coach Reyna's classroom after a discussion with Senator José Menéndez. Photo by Scott Ball.
Students leave Coach Reyna’s classroom after a discussion with Senator José Menéndez. Photo by Scott Ball.

2:17 pm Reyna gives the signal that the bell will ring in one minute, and the senator takes one last question.

“What do you think about gay marriage,” a student asks.

The bell rings.

I expect the senator to humourously evade the question. He does not.

“God made all of us. Why should elected officials get to say who should be married?” Menéndez said.

He goes on to voice support for the “law of the land” as decided by the Supreme Court. He’s willing to keep talking, but the students need to get to class.

4:10 pm: After two more classes and a “teacher duty” after school, Menéndez signs out, and one would presume, heads to the office to start fielding some calls. Or maybe he’s lucky, and gets to go home and take a nap. He certainly earned it.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.