His life had gone from carefree to crazed in a matter of months. During his senior year at [Boston College], Hrag had been able to kick back some. After a Thursday night of partying, he'd wake up at 2 p.m. on Friday, go to his one scheduled class, and then rev up for the weekend's festivities. Now he was rising before dawn and working late into the night. He was getting five hours of sleep—if he slept at all. On top of that, for the first time in his life, he had to cook and clean for himself. He felt like he was 60 years old. When he woke up in the morning and looked in the mirror, he thought, I am my dad.
In addition to teaching five periods of biology every day, he was attending night school from 4 to 10 two evenings a week. All recruits had to be enrolled in a credentialing program as a term of their employment by LAUSD. It helped meet No Child Left Behind requirements, and it helped blunt charges that TFA teachers were ill-prepared. But grad school was a joke, every TFA-er agreed. Loyola Marymount University had designed a special curriculum for busy recruits, which got them a credential and a master's in two years—for $4,000. But the TFA-ers went to class after a long day of work, and most zoned out instead of tuning in. While the professors lectured, they were on their laptops, multitasking. They'd be catching up on E-mail, entering grades, and preparing lessons. Most found that very little of what LMU offered was applicable to life in the classroom. So they saw grad school as just another drain on their time and energy, and put it at the bottom of their list of priorities. Hrag had heard that the feeling was mutual. A lot of professors at LMU refused to teach TFA-ers. They thought they were obnoxious.
What Hrag hadn't realized before he started was that teaching was not a regular job. It enveloped his whole life. It was the first thing he thought of when he woke up, and it was on his mind on the weekends when he walked down to the beach to try to relax. He wasn't just a teacher—he was a referee, a counselor, a doctor—80 things bundled into one. And that made him even more nervous. He had this thing in his stomach, this growing tightness. He told himself it was just the stress of the first couple of months, but he wasn't so sure. He read somewhere that after cops, teachers drank the most alcohol. He believed it; the job could drive anyone to drink.
After two years at Locke, he thought, he was going to be scarred. He was scarred already. He knew he would never forget the drunks on street corners he saw at 6 a.m. on the way to work, or tough little José and troubled Cale. He would always remember the kid who sat there shivering and licking his lips throughout class—Is he on drugs or just hungry? And the gangbangers and the kids who looked like they'd been beaten. And the boy he often drove home from school because he lived so far away. He felt, too, for the kids who came to class every day to "get their learning on" against all odds. Yes, Teach for America was life changing.
He might not end up being an educator—at this point, there was no way—but down the line, years from now, he knew he would care about the achievement gap when 95 percent of the world did not.
Hrag's old college buddies noticed the changes in him. He set aside several hours every Saturday morning for E-mails and phone calls, desperately wanting to stay connected. They all took note of his newfound maturity—and the fact that he had stopped cracking all those corny jokes for which he was famous. They also said they respected what he was doing and admired him. That felt good. The glory was there—at 21, Hrag was a teacher in a position of power. By contrast, his friends' lives seemed mundane—they sat at desks, crunched numbers, drove home, watched TV, and went to sleep. Being a TFA teacher was by far the hardest thing he had ever done, but he'd pick this pressure-cooker life of his over anyone else's any day.
When the Hamalian family first immigrated to the United States, they lived for a short time in Huntington Beach, Calif. Hrag's father, Manuel, worked repairing industrial parts for a mobile franchise company. Few men would take jobs in the inner-city neighborhoods; it was considered too dangerous. But Manuel took whatever business came his way. He ended up working in Watts nearly every day, and he made lots of friends there. Now things had come full circle. His son's first real job in America was in Watts, too. Neither of them had known what he was in for.