Tough Acts to Follow


Luis Rodriguez prods students to see the world with open eyes. For that reason, said Joseph Tran--a high school student whose life revolves around bending, shuffling and stretching what people see--the two have a special bond.

Rodriguez and Tran, a teacher and a student at Van Nuys High School, will spend a good part of this weekend at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion being recognized for their special abilities.

Tran, 18, is an A student who has been hailed as one of the finest young magicians in the country by some of the top tricksters in Los Angeles. Today, he will receive a $1,000 scholarship from the American Honda/Mario J. Machado Fund at a luncheon in the pavilion banquet hall.


It was Rodriguez who recommended Tran for the award, and the two plan to drive together to the event.

On Sunday morning they will drive there again. This time Rodriguez will be honored for his teaching and mentoring at the Los Angeles Excellence in Education Awards presentation.

Six months ago, without Rodriguez’s knowledge, Tran nominated the 39-year-old science, art and yearbook teacher for the award. “I didn’t want to tell him I wrote an essay for his nomination,” Tran said. “It was better as a surprise.”

You’ve never seen a teacher work as hard as Rodriguez, said Tran, who carries himself with a stage performer’s casual elan.

Rodriguez is, as his students say, “crazy busy.” He spends his time at Van Nuys High continuously shifting gears, teaching classes--first in Spanish, then in English--to the top students and then to those who struggle.

When the school day ends, the energetic teacher, called Mr. Rod by his students, runs a tutorial program on campus. When that’s over, he’s off to spend a few hours with his wife and two children. But four nights a week, Rodriguez, who lives just a few blocks from the high school, is back there, teaching English to Spanish-speaking adults.


The way Rodriguez teaches prompted Tran to nominate him for a $2,000 award from the Fulfillment Fund, a nonprofit organization that promotes education and mentoring.

Rodriguez finds a way to be there when the students need him most, Tran said.

Many, like Tran, are first-generation American kids trying to navigate adolescence with feet planted in two different worlds. When they get to know Rodriguez, they realize he’s a man who has been down a similar path and has made it, Tran said.

Rodriguez, like many of them, grew up poor and feeling isolated. As a teen, he came to Los Angeles from Mexico unable to speak English. For eight years after graduating from Van Nuys High School, he worked at a hospital, moving beds around, saving money so he could one day go to college.

When he finally enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, he fell in love with learning, getting a degree in art but also studying math and science, earning nearly enough credits for a second bachelor’s degree.

His most consistent message is a simple one: He wants students to strip away self-imposed limitations and see things differently. It’s all about barriers, he said, “taking barriers and stripping them away so you have a whole new view.”

“He sees things from every angle possible,” said Tran, whose parents--ballroom dance instructors--emigrated from Vietnam in the mid-1970s. “Since I’m involved in magic, I guess that’s why I’ve got a certain appreciation for how he reaches us.”



For his part, Rodriguez said he has met few kids who could see their future more clearly than Tran. In the year that he has taught Tran, the two have developed a close relationship--so close that when Rodriguez’s young daughter recently had a birthday, Tran was there to do his magic show.

“We have become good friends,” said Rodriguez, standing at the front of a classroom packed with science lab equipment and art supplies. “And where Joseph is concerned, it’s just a plain treat to be able to say that.”

What makes Tran so remarkable, Rodriguez said, is his zest for knowledge.

And magic has taught Tran that mastery is within his reach.

“Magic is my life,” he said. “Ever since I was a child, I wanted to perform.”

Tran recalled always carrying playing cards as a child, hoping to learn how to do a few simple tricks. “When I was young, I mean 9 years old or something,” he said, “I’d head off to the library and read all the books on magic, trying to figure out how to do every trick I could.”

Eventually Tran got so good he was accepted into the Junior Society at Hollywood’s Magic Castle. The program, which has about 50 kids, seeks to train young magicians for possible professional careers.

Diana Zimmerman, who founded the program in 1975 with the help of magic enthusiast Cary Grant, marvels over Tran’s uncommon combination of charisma and technical ability. “He has a gift,” she said. “Joseph is definitely one of the top young performers in the country, a kid who can leave you spellbound and tell you a story all at the same time.”

In the fall, Tran will attend Cal State Northridge as a drama major before possibly going on to a career as a magician. He will use the $1,000 award he receives today to buy books.


“I can’t wait to go to college,” Tran said after performing a magic trick in which playing cards seemingly cascade out of his mouth. “College is going to make me a better guy, hopefully--you know, a guy who sees the world like Mr. Rod.”