His life a mess, Dick Chapleau quit Cal State Northridge midway through a master's degree.
His girlfriend had dumped him. He was smoking too much pot. He couldn't study and ended up waiting tables at a San Fernando Valley coffee shop.
Two years later, his luck changed. He met his future wife, returned to school, quit drugs, became an electrician and, finally, a teacher at Lancaster High School.
On Thursday, surrounded by hundreds of students--as well as his wife and children--Chapleau got lucky again, winning $25,000 in recognition of his nine-year teaching career.
Representatives of the Milken Family Foundation, which this year surprised 150 teachers and principals nationwide with no-strings-attached cash prizes, declared Chapleau a winner Thursday at an assembly in the school gym.
Stunned and teary-eyed, Chapleau sat in the bleachers for several minutes without moving. He covered his face with his hands then slowly approached Lowell Milken, president of the foundation.
"This is going to be the only time you ever see me speechless," Chapleau told the cheering students and faculty. "This is the best job in the world. This is the most important job in the world."
A few minutes later, Chapleau was back in Room 212, teaching science to 35 ninth-grade students, with photographers capturing his every move and his family sitting in back of the class. Even the school board president stopped by.
"I never thought I'd be taking roll with all these people watching me," he joked.
Slowly, most of the outsiders left Chapleau alone to explain energy and matter, a lesson sprinkled with quotes from Einstein, Newton and his mother.
"I'm so completely at peace in the classroom," he said later. "I'm home."
His remarkable skill is being able to transfix teen-agers with science talk. Students, dressed in their school's red, white and blue uniforms, laughed at his jokes, took notes and good-naturedly yelled "Attaboy" when a fellow student correctly answered a question.
Chapleau, wearing his trademark white lab coat over a red T-shirt, wove his way through the desks and tables, shifting easily between jokes and science.
After his lecture, Chapleau declared: "Talk break," giving the students a chance to gab among themselves.
Then, he said, he would play a song on his guitar and they could go on to their next class.
Not your typical ninth-grade science class.
"He makes it fun to learn," said Mitchell Mehood, 13. Others agreed Chapleau is cool and never boring.
To explain changes in volume, Chapleau suggested using common household items, such as a cat and a bathtub.
"If you were to put a cat in a bathtub, would the water go up? Yes," he said, grinning. "By the way, anyone got a cat they could bring in?"
The students roared.
His kids, Christopher, 17; Richard, 12, and Jeanette, 11, giggled in the back row. But they really broke up when Chapleau said he woke up at 3 a.m.--his wife curled up against his back like a spoon--and thought about his science lecture for the day.
His wife, blushing slightly, said Chapleau is in his element in the classroom. When he was an electrician, Lisa Chapleau said, he would wake up grumpy every day. Now, she said, "he can't wait to get to school."
Chapleau was also honored as this year's California Teacher of the Year. He helped establish the medical magnet school at Palmdale High School--going door-to-door for donations--which grew from one class in 1991 to an enrollment this year of more than 400.
The Milken award was really special, he said, adding he has no idea how he will spend the money.
Milken, whose brother Michael was the junk bond king jailed for securities fraud, had never met Chapleau before he turned over the check to him Thursday morning. The state's five winning teachers were nominated in secret by district officials and were selected by a panel and the state Department of Education.
But Milken said he knew what kind of teacher Chapleau would be.
"You can see how committed he is," Milken said.
Beverly Louw, Lancaster High's principal, agreed, saying Chapleau is a model teacher--even hosting his own back-to-school night when he had a speaking engagement on the night of the scheduled parent event.
"His heart is bigger than his body," she said. "He teaches with his heart."
His love for the profession is rubbing off. Aside from organizing a Future Teachers Club on campus, his own daughter, Jeanette, said she too wants to work in the classroom.
"He's been a great teacher," she said, looking at her father. "I've always wanted to be a teacher like him."