Ron Michelstein, Cary Tieng
Sometimes teachers wonder whether they truly make a difference. When Ron Michelstein received an invitation to attend Cary Tieng’s high school graduation last June, he knew he had.
Tieng didn’t just walk across the stage and receive her diploma; she was the commencement speaker at Tracy High Continuation School in Cerritos.
“Hi, I’m Cary Tieng, and I’ve been to jail two or three times,” she told the audience. “To some people, I’m a sunflower growing in the concrete.”
Seeing his former student act with such poise and confidence was a thrill for Michelstein, who was Tieng’s math teacher for six months in 2011 during her incarceration at Camp Scudder’s Road to Success Academy in Santa Clarita. The icing on the cake was seeing her receive a handful of scholarships.
Tieng got into trouble hanging out with gang members and running away from home. When friends burglarized a home and threatened her with harm if she didn’t take the rap, she confessed to the crime and was sentenced to six months at Camp Scudder. It was not summer camp. She was picked on by the other inmates. She was depressed and lonely.
Michelstein told her to keep her head up. He encouraged her to try harder in math. Soon she was on Camp Scudder’s honor roll.
“It made a difference when he talked to me,” says Tieng. “He had a strict side, but he also joked around and made me laugh. I could tell that he cared.”
Michelstein tries not to be judgmental. He believes everyone has flaws. In addition to teaching math, he talks about values.
“I talk about honesty,” says the Los Angeles County Office of Education Association member. “I talk about integrity, or what you do when no one’s looking. I talk about having a work ethic. I tell students it’s hard to fail, get fired or get arrested when you have these traits.”
Tieng realized that she had never really worked hard and decided to “stop being lazy. I figured that if was stuck at the camp, I might as well do something.”
Since leaving Camp Scudder, she enrolled in a trade school to learn how to be a surgical technician. She works at a CPA firm. She isn’t sure if she wants to fulfill her dream of teaching English in Korea or become a surgeon, but Tieng believes she can accomplish whatever she sets out to do.
Michelstein has also taken on a new challenge: He is piloting a program to help students learn life skills. It is called PAC, which stands for Personal, Academic and Career development.
“The girls I teach in the camp have so much potential. I can teach them math all day, but it won’t do any good if they are the smartest kid on the cell block and are getting into trouble. I need to show them a better way.”