Profile Series: Social studies teacher John Matos has a diverse past

Story by Cory Waltrip, editor-in-chief

Many students know John Matos as a charismatic social studies and film teacher who brings great energy to the classroom, yet there is more to him than meets the eye. After talking with him for a measly 30 minutes, what emerges is an intelligent, kind man with a diverse set of interests from an interesting background.

Matos was born in Portugal and lived there until he was 11 years old when he immigrated to the United States. He explained that his Portuguese background is very important to him; it is his first language, and he feels culturally connected to his homeland. His family is an old family rooted in Portuguese tradition that has ingrained itself into Matos. He laughed and said that his Portuguese childhood is what makes him a strict teacher because he witnessed many stern, perhaps violent, reprimands by his teachers there.

For many immigrants, arriving in America corresponds with great excitement and joy, but for Matos, that wasn’t quite the case.

“Moving to the U.S. was a very sad time in my life. The reason that I had to move is because my mother passed away. That, coupled with the fact that my life in Portugal disappeared, was very hard to take,” Matos explained.

As he entered the “land of opportunity,” Matos was very disoriented.

“Everything was bigger — the cars, the bridges, the houses. It was all very different from Portugal.”

Matos described the first few months of school as a blur. He didn’t understand anything because he didn’t speak one word of English, and his working-class, Italian-American dominated New Jersey town was filled with racism. He defined his biggest emotion as fear, and his only friend was a Puerto Rican boy who he could somewhat communicate with because of the similarity in their languages. The Italian boys constantly picked on the boy, and thus Matos was bullied as well. There was no English as a Second Language program, and many of his teachers were not inclined to help the new immigrant. From that experience sprang forth the inspiration to be a teacher and an ESL director.

“My primary goal was to get out of there as soon as possible, and I realized quickly that the best path for that was education, and so I began to get great grades,” Matos said.

Matos explained that films have shaped his goals and perception of America.

“I saw Risky Business and wanted to go to an Ivy League school, so I worked hard to become the valedictorian; I saw Dead Poets’ Society and decided I wanted to attend Dartmouth; and then I was disappointed when I got there and it wasn’t like the movie. I saw Wall Street and aspired to work in New York City banking.”

Matos finally got his wish when he was accepted to Dartmouth. When he first arrived, he didn’t like it. He explained that it was the first time he had felt poor because he was surrounded by so much wealth. Before, mainly working-class immigrant families had surrounded him, yet now most of his classmates were rich WASP’s. But by his freshman spring semester, he found his niche, and he made his best friends to this day. He found the communities of art, film, Third -World development majors and working-class students as home. He expressed his distaste in working in the school cafeteria to pay his way through college as various intoxicated frat boys would disrespect him and his staff. He ended up being a manager.

“I had better grades than most of these boys, but they would never have expected that,” Matos explained.

Matos realized that he needed to make money to pay off his college loans, so he interviewed for jobs in the world of banking even though his real desire was to go to Hollywood and make movies. He scored a job with Chase Manhattan, and he was immediately struck by the competitive culture and lack of concern for values that he held in high regard. Matos explained that loaning large sums of money to companies involved in logging and mining that didn’t have much respect for the environment or the rights of native people didn’t sit well with him. Eventually, he moved to another banking company, UBS, which matched up better with his values. He also had more normal hours, changing from ridiculous 80-hour workweeks to a still significant 50-hour week. Yet after two and a half years, Matos decided that the banking world was not for him, and he quit his job and moved to Boulder.

What initially attracted Matos to Boulder was his growing interest in Buddhism and the possibility of working at Naropa University. He landed a job in computer networking at the Buddhist school but soon found out that this wasn’t his passion.

“I’m a people person,” he explained.

Then came an opportunity to tutor ESL students at Centaurus High School, and Matos finally recognized what his true calling was: teaching. He said that education had been everything for him; it had been his savior from his tough New Jersey town, and so he realized where his true passion lay. After applying for various jobs in the Denver Public School District, he was contacted for a post at poor, urban Horace Mann Middle School where 90 percent of the students were on free and reduced lunch and 95 percent were Latino. This was a high-stress job where teachers were subject to much pressure over their students’ CSAP scores.

“It was the toughest job I’ve ever loved,” Matos said.

Matos soon felt that teachers were not being treated fairly in the Denver Public School system, so he began to search for a new job in a different school district. Matos explained how Boulder High came out of the blue with a job offer and he was not initially interested. Then Matos said with a chuckle and a Scarface reference, “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

Matos would have the unique opportunity to run the ESL program as well teach Advanced Placement students, so he took the interview and was thoroughly impressed. He said that students, parents, teachers and administrators were on the interview committee, and that impressed him greatly. He said he had the chance to make a difference, so he accepted the offer.

Now Matos said that he has the perfect job at Boulder High. Teaching is his passion.

”If I lose this passion, then I’m out, but that hasn’t happened and I love my job now,” Matos said.

Many Boulder High students know Matos through his bubbly personality and constant happiness. Some of this pleasure may stem from what Matos said is his passion, dancing.

“I love salsa, samba, house music, and my newfound passion, dubstep,” Matos explained.

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