HIGH LIFE : Teacher Dares to Look Ahead : AIDS Victim Shows Hope, Optimism, Prompting High Praise From Students
Pinned to the office wall is a poem titled “I Love Myself the Way I Am.” Homecoming pictures hang on the back wall and diplomas and teaching awards surround a calendar on which is printed the encouraging statement, “May You Walk Through Life With Courage and Optimism.”
Vincent Chalk, 43, gets up from his chair and asks Tim Spires, a hearing-impaired student, if he is ready for his interview at Lucky’s supermarket.
Spires nods with a quick smile as Chalk gives him a final bit of advice through sign language and the spoken word: “Be prepared. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. In the interview, be positive. And when the man asks whether or not you can do the job, what skills do you have, or if you think you can handle hearing people while you bag the groceries, just think of a good answer that will satisfy you. Don’t worry. I’ll be there too.”
Chalk, who has taught handicapped children for 13 years, the last seven for the Orange County Department of Education, is a career guidance counselor for hearing-impaired students at Irvine’s University High School.
In February, 1987, Chalk contracted pneumonia, and further medical tests revealed that he had acquired immune deficiency syndrome. When he was able to return to work in April, the county education department--citing concern over student health, disruption in the district and the need to avoid lawsuits--decided that he should leave the classroom and work at home, writing grant proposals.
Chalk objected and filed suit, seeking to retain his job. In September, a federal judge refused to stop the transfer from classroom to home. In November, however, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco criticized the department’s “irrational fear” of AIDS in ruling that the transfer was a violation of Chalk’s rights.
So, on Nov. 23, Chalk returned to doing what he does best--teaching--but at his request, on a part-time basis. And on May 5, he accepted $35,000 from the county Department of Education in an out-of-court settlement.
“I don’t have any specific classes that I teach right now,” said Chalk, who lives in Long Beach. “I’m part of a job-training program where I work with a deaf coach, Tom De La O, and about 20 students who are juniors and seniors.
“I conduct a three-year evaluation with each of the students, where they’re given audio, speech and vocational tests. And after the evaluation, I meet with the student and his parents and discuss what the student’s future plans lean toward.”
Chalk, a 1968 graduate of Brigham Young University, majored in psychology and minored in music. He played French horn and sang. He completed his masters in rehabilitation skills at Cal State Northridge and earned his teaching credentials from Cal State San Bernardino.
Born and raised in Lewis, Kan., Chalk graduated from high school in a class of 16 students. He said he had wanted to become a teacher ever since he was in high school, but he became interested in teaching deaf students when he went on a Mormon mission to the Pacific Northwest.
“I met a hearing-impaired missionary who taught me how to finger spell. But I got easily frustrated because I wanted to learn how to communicate not only with him but with other hearing-impaired people. So I learned how to sign and eventually taught religion to a hearing-impaired family in Seattle.”
Chalk says he tries to teach his hearing-impaired students to feel confident about themselves.
“It is important for me to make sure that my students can comfortably present themselves and communicate to others in a hearing environment. Also, I want them to overcome their handicap, feel a higher self-esteem for themselves and to be able to apply the knowledge that has been presented to them.”
Hearing-impaired student Gabrielle Curtis, 16, said this advice has helped.
“I saw him as someone I admired,” Curtis said. “He was my friend, the best teacher and a buddy. One thing I remembered that he did for me was help me get my first poem, ‘Cats and Hippopotamus,’ published in the school annual of poems and stories when I was in junior high. He made me interested in writing and taught me how to express myself through my poems. I’m proud of him because he is doing very well and I want him to keep on succeeding.”
Spires, 16, said Chalk teaches his students to be self-sufficient.
“It is hard to get a job most of the time when you are deaf,” he said. “But Mr. Chalk helped our high school find part-time jobs for the students. He finds us jobs that we want and makes us want to go out, work for it and do well.”
Chalk said the support he has received from his students and fellow staff members has helped him feel comfortable about returning to work.
“I received support from the students--phone calls and cards. I had worked with many of the students since junior high, so I have established a good and trusting relationship with them. I feel that those students who are uncomfortable around me either learn or are persuaded by what is taught at home. But they just aren’t aware of the facts.
“I think people need to be sensitive to others rather than judging harshly, because you need to realize the full picture and, I guess, cut each other some slack.”
Student Richard Brklacich, 17, said that because he had such a friendly relationship with Chalk, it stopped him from thinking negatively about AIDS victims.
“It was difficult at first to accept Mr. Chalk because I was such a strong activist against gay rights,” Brklacich said. “But when I discovered that he had AIDS, it was hard.
“It’s different when you know a person well who has AIDS, so it changed me a lot. Before, I was an outspoken student against anyone with AIDS, but I don’t say anything bad about anyone anymore because Mr. Chalk is a special teacher. He’s probably the only teacher, who, as a teacher, makes friends with everyone. He has no personality conflicts.”
Carolyn Rolland, principal of the Hearing-Impaired School at University, said that AIDS has not made a difference in Chalk’s relationship with fellow staff members because the relationship is so close.
“I think everyone has grown in a positive way,” Rolland said. “I think when we look at challenges, no matter how difficult they may be, we’re never given something that we don’t have the ability to handle. I truly believe that there’s something to be gained by it. And Vince is growing just as well as all of us.”
Hartley Koch, school psychiatrist for the hearing-impaired, said: “We’ve (Chalk and myself) been friends, kind of confidantes, for a long time. I knew he was gay long before everyone else, when homosexuality was a topic that was never discussed.
“I think the students all love and respect Vince.”
Robert Bruce, University principal, said Chalk’s situation has not produced any negative results at his school.
“In the beginning, people didn’t know as much about AIDS as they do now,” Bruce said. “I can’t change people’s emotions about AIDS, but I can inform them about it.
“The mission of the school is to provide education to its students, and we are able to improve education because of knowledge. Informing our students about AIDS validates our view of educating others by knowledge.”
Chalk said that having AIDS has actually brought him closer to his students, and this allows him to remain optimistic.
“In a way, I feel that this did indeed strengthen my relationship with my students, especially because they were deaf. They were handicapped, and they realized that I had a handicap too. Before, I could never really relate with their situation--their wants and desires--because I wasn’t deaf. But now, we both understand and know that we all share a handicap.
“As a result, as a teacher, I’m a role model to my students. I try to keep an optimistic attitude and not let negativism into my life. I don’t like it when I hear others gossiping, and when I do, I try to change the subject because I don’t want to increase the power of negativity in my surroundings.”
Steve Kittell, 18, a hearing-impaired student, said: “At first, when he (Chalk) had AIDS, I was very sympathetic. He always helped me, he gave me advice about the future and he encouraged me to go to college.
“But now I’m upset. I’m still close, but I’m concerned about his future. He’s a nice person, he truly helps all, he does a good job, but most of all he cares about the students’ futures and he only wants good things for everyone.”
David Smith, 19, also hearing-impaired, said: “Before, when he didn’t have AIDS, I had him in sixth grade. Now, I feel a little different with him. I feel a little nervous that he has AIDS, but it’s slowly not bothering me anymore. I’ve gained trust in him and I talk to him now.”
One thing Chalk promises himself is to remain strong and not let the fact that he has AIDS control his life. This means planning to return to his job in the fall and fighting for his job last year.
“I had to fight to try to get my teaching position back. I didn’t think that it was right for them to take that away from me. Perhaps if someone had set the precedent and protested in order to teach again, then I wouldn’t have had to do it myself. But because no one did, I set the precedent.
“I’ve had friends who have died from AIDS, and I saw them basically give up hope. And if I had just allowed myself to give up my teaching because I had AIDS, then I’d be giving up on everything.”
Chalk continues to present his message of strength, determination and perseverance.
“I’ve taught my students to learn how to survive and be strong in a society where they are the ones with handicaps. And if I didn’t do the same and learn to keep an optimistic spirit, then I would feel that I was giving up on my students and myself. That would be going against all of the principles that I believe and have tried to teach them.”
Spires later got that job as a bag boy at Lucky’s.
“Nothing’s really changed between us,” Spires said of his relationship with Chalk. “But I think now I feel closer to him because I know that he won’t be there forever. And I guess we really need to thank him for all the support he’s given us.”