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Comedian Has a Serious Message for Students

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Times Staff Writer

The alternative high school teacher from a rural farming town in the San Joaquin Valley pondered how to reward his four graduating students.

The students from Delano attend North Kern Community School, a last stop for students who don’t fit in well at the regular high school.

Teacher David Dayan knew that Heather Bodirsky, Guillermo Castro, Aaron Dominguez and Julianna Flores also would face disadvantages as they headed into adulthood.

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Many of his students -- like other teenagers in the small farming towns sprinkled through the Central Valley -- come from humble means.

Few aim to attend college, instead settling for the few opportunities in the small towns where they grew up.

So the teacher reached for an unusual resource.

Through a friend who is a crew member on television’s “George Lopez Show,” Dayan arranged to take the four students on a field trip in late November to the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank.

Lopez, Dayan figured, is Latino, as are most of his students.

The star, who openly shares his rags-to-riches story and advocates on behalf of the Latino community, overcame a dysfunctional family life to accomplish his dream.

“For me, I thought of what I could do for them as a teacher, “ Dayan said.

“I wanted them to see a role model of someone who succeeded, so they could make a connection that, if they set their minds to it, there’s nothing they can’t achieve,” he added.

Dayan has taken students on outings before -- to see tapings of Hollywood shows or breathe the fresh air in the Sierra Nevada.

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It’s part of his philosophy as a teacher: just showing students the possibilities in the outside world might be enough to make a difference in their lives.

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One reason Heather doesn’t attend regular high school is that she has responsibilities at home -- taking care of her father and grandfather who are ill.

Guillermo, who never has known his father, was raised by his single mother, who works at a day-care center.

Julianna lives in Earlimart, an even smaller town north of Delano, with her father, a truck driver, and her mother, who stays at home. From her window, Julianna can see the open fields.

Aaron’s mother, a secretary, is separated from his father, a barber.

All four of the students have worked part time at some point as they have tried to finish high school.

Dayan’s expectations for their field trip to Burbank were modest: Maybe the students could meet Lopez in person, maybe get his autograph.

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But on the set, Lopez came out to speak to Dayan, fellow teacher Dan Paquette and the students, who sat around him.

Lopez talked about his life, about being raised by his grandparents in the east San Fernando Valley. How he barely graduated from high school. How he applied for a job once and was given a math test. After he did poorly, he knew then that no one would ever hire him for his skills.

He told them how in his late teens, he “tried to find himself in a bottle.” But he realized that instead of drinking, he needed to look inside himself to find out who he was.

Lopez said he realized that he wanted to be a famous comedian. Despite being told by friends that he would never make it, he worked hard at it for 18 years. Still, he said, he never dreamed that he could have a TV show because he didn’t think the studios would give a Latino a chance.

But through hard work and opportunities, he told the students, he had accomplished something “beyond my wildest dreams.”

Lopez then asked the four students how many of their parents had gone to college. No hands were raised.

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“That’s the cycle you have to break,” was the comedian’s message.

He wrote a few words of encouragement on scripts he gave to each of them, and “we thought that was going to be it,” Dayan recalled. “That was our highest expectation.”

Instead, Lopez took a stroll and showed the two teachers and four students around the lot. At the gift shop, he told the students: “Pick anything you want.”

Said Guillermo: “I didn’t even know what to get because I couldn’t believe it.”

Each student humbly picked an item: Guillermo, Aaron and Heather got jackets. Julianna selected a T-shirt with the logo from the “Friends” show.

“Is that all you want?” Dayan remembers Lopez asking her. “I could see it troubled him.”

Lopez found a bag, something she might use to carry books or a laptop when she goes to college, and gave it to her.

Lopez put the gifts on his credit card and said his goodbyes.

The teacher was moved by Lopez’s generosity -- not just the gifts, but the 45 minutes he spent encouraging the students. That, he said, was the greater gift.

Back at school, helping the students fill out financial aid forms and applications for junior college, Dayan hoped that some of what Lopez said had taken hold.

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“My hope is that this is a seed that will end up growing, that whatever they dream is possible,” he said.

It seems that seed is already growing.

Julianna, who had wanted to be a nurse, now thinks becoming a doctor may be a better goal. “I think talking to him pushed me to go further than what I wanted to,” she said.

For Guillermo, what stuck was Lopez’s take on not using one’s race as an excuse to fail.

“The part where he said not using the color of your skin,” Guillermo said, “that’s something that I’m not going to do -- say that I can’t become something because of my skin color.”

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