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The Dallas Morning News

Maximino Morales: It's His Nature To Serve Others Army Reserve Duty Will Take Devoted Teacher From Classroom To Iraq


January 15, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Dallas Morning News. All rights reserved.

An immense ocean and vast deserts separate Dorsey Elementary School in Rowlett from the bullets and explosions of post-war Iraq.

But the tension of that smoldering Middle Eastern nation could be felt at the school Tuesday as children's author and illustrator Maximino Morales taught his third-grade bilingual class for the last time.

It was visible in his wife's moist eyes, and it was heard in the voice of a boy who admires his instructor, a 38-year-old native of Puerto Rico, who doubles his duty as a sergeant in the Grand Prairie-based 223rd Maintenance Company of the Army Reserve.

"He's like the best teacher in the world," said Antonio Torres. "I want him to come back, because he teaches me a lot. I want him to come back and be safe."

It will be at least 545 days before Sgt. Morales returns to teach at Dorsey.

The 15-year veteran was notified Sunday that he has been activated for that period and will be prepped at Fort Hood before going to Iraq to supervise the maintenance of tanks, trucks and other heavy equipment.

Sgt. Morales served four years of active duty in Germany and four in Kansas at Fort Riley. But he transferred to the reserves seven years ago as he embarked on a teaching career.

The new term of duty temporarily derails his fledgling literary efforts, which last year produced three self-published children's books that he illustrated and wrote in both English and Spanish.

But Sgt. Morales said he is not bitter over the interruption of his career.

"The Army has done great things for me," he said.

He took courses at Fort Riley to earn a bachelor's degree from Upper Iowa University. He said the Army's "Troops to Teachers" program for soldiers with degrees sent him on a path that led to his career in education.

Three years ago, Sgt. Morales said, he earned a master's degree in education leadership - specializing in bilingual education - from Texas Woman's University.

"It's been good," he said. "I can't complain."

Sgt. Morales and his wife, Catherine, teach at Dorsey. She leads a second-grade bilingual class a few doors south of his third-graders.

"I tell young people, 'Just serve the country,'" Sgt. Morales said. "Just do it. It will give you so many opportunities."

"And now it's our turn to give back," said Ms. Morales.

Both teachers became animated as they described the sights they saw during Sgt. Morales' assignment in Germany.

There were Bavarian castles, the Isle of Capri, the canals of Amsterdam and the Roman Colosseum.

"We were in Paris for five days," Ms. Morales said. "And we went all the way to the top of the Eiffel Tower. We went skiing in Austria."

"We went to see the Berlin Wall," she said. "Just chunks, that's all they keep, just chunks to remind the people of what happened.

"And then there was the Vatican on Christmas Day," she said. "We saw the pope. He gave the blessings in each nation's language. There were so many people. It took a couple of hours."

The couple reminisced about their European experiences after school, at the end of a long day that began with a red-and-blue message on the school's hurricane fence: "Max says, 'I'll be OK!' God bless Max."

In a last-period assembly, students from every class cheered the teacher, who said the experience was "overwhelming."

In between, Sgt. Morales was in perpetual motion during his last day of classroom work.

It's a neat, eye-catching room, full of posters and slogans, a large globe, larger television, teddy bears, and the United States and Texas flags.

One poster shows the fierce face of a bald eagle above the words: "Courage. Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it."

Twenty-two kids were seated around four tables as Sgt. Morales began a section on writing.

"What was the greatest gift?" he asked one boy.

"A bicycle!" the youngster replied.

"So, what's the title?" the teacher asked.

"The Greatest Gift!" the student said.

"So, now, you're going to write about who gave you the bicycle and why it's the greatest gift," Sgt. Morales said as the boy nodded.

Earning praise

"He has been a master teacher since Day One," said Debbie Chisholm, Dorsey's principal. "He knows his students. He started assessing them the very first day. He's always on his feet. It's a hard way to teach, but that's what we want our teachers to do.

"The students love being at their learning stations," Ms. Chisholm said. "They are drawn to him and learn so well from him. He's made such a difference. It's going to be hard to fill his shoes."

Samantha Munoz said she would miss her teacher. She said she especially likes Sgt. Morales' writing course.

"We have to choose a topic from the spider web on the board," she said. "I like to write about what was my favorite present at Christmas - a big house for Barbie."

Samantha also said one of her favorite books is Sgt. Morales' Lucky Me.

"It's about when Juanito found a dollar, and his mom told him to go buy some eggs," Samantha explained. "But he didn't follow directions. He bought some [baseball] cards.

"In the end, he learned you have to follow instructions so you don't get grounded."

"This is from my childhood," Sgt. Morales later explained. "We're talking about consequences, taking responsibility for yourself."

Lucky Me bears a second title: Que Suerte. And each page is written in both English and Spanish.

The same goes for The Wooden Go-Cart/El Carrito de Madera and Juan and the Three Wise Men/Juan y los Tres Reyes Magos.

A person could learn to read the stories in either language by juxtaposing the Spanish and English paragraphs.

Most of the illustrations include eyes as a common element.

There are eyes for the sun and moon, eyes in windows, trees, clouds, even furniture and appliances.

"Although you're alone in the world, there are eyes out there," Sgt. Morales said. "And they're always watching. People are watching over you, and they care about you."

"I want to tell my students I'm sad to leave them in the middle of the year," he said. "But I'm also proud to serve the country and protect them and do my civic duty.

"We teach them all the time to be good citizens and to say the pledge of allegiance. Right now, I'm pledging to go. That's my duty."

Antonio said he understands why Sgt. Morales must go to Iraq.

"Soldiers are helping the people so they can have a new president," Antonio said. "They're over there fighting so they can be, like, free."

Away from home

The tour in Iraq will be Sgt. Morales' first in a war zone. It also will be his first prolonged separation from his wife since his first six months of Army service.

"She hates me right now," he said through a nervous laugh. "She's always encouraged me. She's the one who gave me my first color pencils."

Ms. Morales doesn't hate her husband.

"I'm just going to be devastated for a while," she said. "We haven't been separated in 19 years, and now it's going to seem like forever.

"I always had mixed feelings about this," Ms. Morales said. "But I want him to be true to his nature. I want him to do what he thinks he must do for this country.

"He has all my support, and I wish him a safe return. I love him so much. I tell him that daily."

The couple taught together in Dallas and Plano before transferring this year to the Garland district.

They need not worry about continuing that tradition after Sgt. Morales returns from Iraq, said Victor Leos, the district's director of professional personnel.

Mr. Leos said Sgt. Morales' classroom would be waiting.

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