Photo by Jorge Ugan
On nearly a daily basis, laughter can be heard emanating from history teacher Richard Cabrera’s classroom.
“In order to survive in my class, you got to have a good sense of humor because if not, all this is going to be is a historical beatdown,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera has redesigned the way history is taught with his jokes about the people of the past and his stories about his experiences growing up and making mistakes in the army.
Cabrera loves sharing hilarious stories with his students about his experiences during the eight years he served in the army. He joined the army because he had no money to go to college. He intended to become a truck driver, but the army noticed he had an affinity for weapons. Cabrera was a sniper for four years and a combat medic for four years after that.
The army was a sort of “culture shock” for Cabrera because of the way people were treated and the fact that people from everywhere joined the army. According to Cabrera, any stereotype about a certain race that people had disappears while in the army.
“You’re not white; you’re not black; you’re not Hispanic; you’re green. You’re a team, and you’re a family,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera has carried this mentality into the classroom. His classroom is like a family, and teaching AP classes in which there is a test at the end of year is reminiscent of the army: Like in the army, there’s an objective and a mission that needs to be completed.
Being in the army has taught Cabrera three important lessons.
“Always pay attention to detail, [and] panic is for the unprepared” are two of those lessons. The third one he learned after accidentally setting off an explosion and being launched 15 feet into the air. “Life is a mean teacher. Life will give you the test first and the lesson afterword,” Cabrera said was one of the most important things he learned in the army.
And life has, in fact, been a “mean teacher” for him.
“When I was a teenager and going to school, I had a best friend named Debbie. We were just friends, nothing more. We helped each other with whatever we each needed help with. We were sitting on the front steps of the school one day, looking at the yearbook, and Debbie’s dad comes up in his car. He gets out of the car and gets mad at her. She leaves and he starts yelling terrible things. The next day, a Thursday, she doesn’t show up to school. Monday she’s not there. Tuesday’s she not there. Her dad had taken her out of the school, and I never saw her again. They say time heals, but the truth is, it may heal, but when you think about it, it will hurt as bad as it did at that moment,” Cabrera said, describing this as one of his most poignant moments.
This event was his first taste of racism. The idea that Debbie’s father would not want her hanging out with a Hispanic guy astounded and greatly irritated him. These hard experiences are what have made Cabrera who he is.
Despite these challenges, Cabrera has a positive outlook on life. He always tries his best to be nice to people and to help others. Cabrera is at his happiest when he is spending time with his family or when he is at Disney World.
His daughter is his pride and joy. He considers the birth of his daughter to be the happiest moment in his life and is always very proud when he sees his daughter accomplish something after being scared to do so. Cabrera believes that that the most important thing in his life is always being there for his child.
But Cabrera also thinks that, as a teacher, it is equally important to be there for his students. Cabrera got a job at a school after he got out of the army, and he noticed that a lot of the teachers had no patience with their students and did not really want to be with kids. This and coaching baseball for many years inspired him to become a teacher.
“I was able to get through to [kids]. I understood how they thought,” Cabrera said. “Getting to interact with kids every day is the most rewarding part of the job. I learn a lot with kids. My biggest fear is not being able to help a kid who needed help.”