At Lee

On the mornings when I arrived at sunrise, Cesar was already working on the field behind the school. He wore a dark suit and black tie, and pushed a little cart that painted the lines of the soccer field onto the dry grass. Orange light poured over the dingy apartments that surrounded Lee High School, and if I ignored the neighborhood’s barred windows and high chain-link fences, it looked as if Cesar were tending his own estate somewhere in the wine country.

We were there at dawn for very different reasons, or the same reason, depending on how you looked at things. In 2010, after an especially poor year of test results, the Houston Independent School District took on the burden of improving Lee. They replaced the administration with a new team and established a partnership with a crew of Harvard data analysts. The new principal asked Cesar, a former student and soccer player at Lee, to leave. Cesar was personable and suave as a teacher, but ten years in the army had made him meticulous and determined as well. He stayed on as Lee’s varsity soccer coach, painting lines on the fields between his shift at a local radio station and the first bell at the middle school where he now taught.

I’d been hired a few weeks out of college—Lee was my first teaching job. I tried to make up for my inexperience by working fourteen-hour days, and I grew accustomed to seeing the sun rise and set from the school. I also coached the JV soccer team and, after their season ended, I was Cesar’s assistant coach, helping with the varsity team as the play-offs began.

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