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CPS principal turns his PTSD diagnosis into teachable moment at Orozco school

Video by Ashlee Rezin & Brian Ernst

“You’re back!” a fifth-grader hollered, jumping out of his seat and breaking the din of Orozco Elementary School’s cafeteria the second he spotted Principal Efraín Martínez.

As the 39-year-old educator made the usual rounds on his first morning back to work, a chorus of students and staffers welcomed him with high-fives and hugs.

Not that the kids knew much about where Mr. Martínez had been — though the fifth-grade breakfast table had an inkling he’d been sick.

Martinez was cryptic when he announced in October he was taking four weeks off “to support my own health and wellness.”

Now that he’s back, he’s done keeping secrets.

He’s coming clean about a decadeslong battle with mental health issues, speaking about them as if they’re a heart condition or other physical malady.

“If we don’t have those conversations, then we don’t do anything, we’re always allowing memories to use us instead of us using our memories,” Martínez said. “I’m a teacher by heart. If I don’t do this and wait until I retire so it doesn’t hurt my professional career, those are lives that I could not impact, right?”

For Martínez, the month he’s been away from his school had been a long time in the making.

Students and parents knew of his bravery in May that landed him in the emergency room and on TV news. While Martínez was driving to school, he saved an elderly man who’d caught fire in an auto mishap, extinguishing the flames while witnesses looked on.

But none of them knew about his childhood. On his sixth birthday, a parent beat him. Then, he endured attempted sexual abuse at the hands of a coach, and again by a family friend. He learned at 12 his mother wasn’t who he thought she was.

After he rescued the elderly man, the sudden death of the little sister of some of his Orozco students had triggered a mental health crisis that forced him out of work and into the treatment he had long put off.

As a Chicago Public Schools principal in charge of 500-plus kids, dozens of staffers and a $4.4 million budget, Martínez thought he was in control. He had to be. So many people depend on him.

But he wasn’t taking his own advice to take care of yourself.

He had always emphasized wellness for the mostly Latino students in the Pilsen school — disciplining kids with support rather than punishments, and starting everyone’s day with a minute of meditation over the school’s P.A. system.

Now, he’s his own best case study, opening up to the Chicago Sun-Times about his therapy regimen, which includes daily meditation and journaling and daily walks with his family’s bubbly Pomeranian, Chulu, who “gives me a coping skill that no other medication or anything can provide.”

Efraín Martínez, principal at Orozco Community Academy, meditates with the help of the Daily Calm app at his home on the Southwest Side. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Efraín Martínez, principal at Orozco Community Academy, meditates with the help of the Daily Calm app at his home on the Southwest Side. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A violent upbringing

Efraín Martínez’s memories began in Puerto Rico, where he was born to parents much older and more reserved than those of his friends.

His father, 54 at his birth, was a veteran of World War II, his mother very religious. They already had adult children.

Their home, as he remembers it, was violent, negligent.

They marked his fifth birthday by withholding cake and friends because he acted out at school. On his sixth, his mother beat him with a piece of wood after threatening him in front of schoolmates with a belt.

As a boy, he remembers fending for himself, heating food from cans, always the last one picked up. By the time Efraín was 12, he’d been attacked by a soccer coach who put a hand down his pants, and later fended off an older male, running home with only half his clothes from a hill the guy drove him to.

“For the second time, this was happening because of the negligence of my parents,” Martínez said. “So as you can imagine I have all this trauma, and I always kept it to myself.”

At 12, they dropped a bombshell: The woman who raised him wasn’t his biological mother. As the story went, his father had brought baby Efraín home in a basket to his wife in San Juan, an infant he was given while on business in the Dominican Republic.

Actually, the basket was a prop in a story concocted to appeal to the religious wife. Efraín’s biological mother was a girlfriend of his father’s on the island’s west coast who’d had other lovers herself. They had a daughter, too, a little older than Efraín.

A way out

At 18, Efraín couldn’t wait to bolt. Armed with a scholarship and textbook English, he moved to Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, to attend a college where “go back to Mexico” was frequently yelled at him.

After getting a master’s degree in literature from the University of Illinois at Chicago, on a path to becoming a college professor, he was accepted to a Ph.D. program at Northwestern.

Only, academia bored him.

What stood out as fun during his studies was teaching Spanish to undergrads, so at 26, Martínez got a teaching certificate. CPS hired him as a Spanish teacher and then as an assistant principal.

Principal Efraín Martínez greets students at Orozco Community Academy, Monday morning, Nov. 19, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Principal Efraín Martínez greets students at Orozco Community Academy, Monday morning, Nov. 19, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In 2015, married with a daughter and son, he landed the top spot at Orozco, a gem of a neighborhood school just north of the National Museum of Mexican Art, housed in a bright building less than 20 years old.

Many parents protested outside the school, unhappy about his decision to nix the weekly singing of the Mexican national anthem. But others appreciated his work ethic and energy.

“For years,” he said, “I thought it was normal to have nightmares, to not sleep, to sleep an hour or two hours a day so a lot of people say, ‘How do you do this work, how do you accomplish all of this stuff?'” And I said, ‘Well you know I really don’t need much sleep.’ Because I already adjusted my body.”

‘Then the nightmares started’

Martínez was on his way to school in May when he spotted flames coming from a landscaping trailer near 31st and Western.

“It’s not like my first reaction was, ‘Let me get out of the car,'” Martinez recalled. “Of course my first reaction is, ‘I don’t want to get burned.’ I don’t see anybody, but before I decide to go or leave, this guy comes out of the landscape truck on fire, yelling, and I’m like ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to see my kids again.’

“And I remembered that my father’s father died after a fire. So all these things come to me, but I get out.”

He helped tamp out the flames burning the man’s clothing and kept him from the lawn equipment exploding on the trailer. Then, annoyed that bystanders would only shoot video of the incident and not lend a helping hand, he drove the rest of the way to work, unaware of how filthy he was.

The burning landscaping truck that stopped Efraín Martínez and turned him into a hero | Go Fund Me photo
The burning landscaping truck that stopped Efraín Martínez and turned him into a hero | Go Fund Me photo

At school, chattering about the morning’s excitement, Martínez felt funny enough to see the nurse.

That’s when he passed out.

“And they took me to the hospital,” he said. “And you know, all I can think is, ‘Oh my God. People are going to think I’m crazy, people are gonna think I’m weak.’ Because you are accustomed to think of yourself, especially when you’re a leader, you’re, nothing happens to you, right?

“But then the nightmares started.”

Doctors pushed Martínez to go to therapy, but he couldn’t find the time. At school, he had meetings, trainings, students with all kinds of needs.

“You’re always trying to embrace your staff because that’s how they do the great work, when they feel embraced and supported,” he said. “But in the meantime I was forgetting about me.”

In October, Martínez was driving to a CPS principal celebration at Navy Pier when a teacher texted terrible news: the 5-year-old little sister of an Orozco family had died in a car crash.

His body freaked out. First with spasms. Then he couldn’t move his legs. He managed to curb the car and pull himself together enough to drive to the emergency room at UIC.

They released him after he committed to behavioral therapy for chronic PTSD, and agreed to leave work for at least a month, maybe two — a lifetime for a CPS principal. His assistant principal took the reins.

On the second day of his leave, Orozco’s Local School Council showed its support by unanimously approving Martínez’s contract for four more years.

Keeping focus, maintaining treatment

Janice Jackson, the former principal who now heads CPS as CEO, praised Martínez as an “empathetic leader” and acknowledged the job is “very taxing.”

“What I’m most proud of is just his courage, and bringing this issue forward because a lot of times we deal with these things privately,” she said. “We suffer in silence, and we get help in silence and it sounds like . . . he’s trying to take the stigma away of reaching out to get help.

“I think that that’s something that’s really important in the Latino community, and in the African-American community as well.”

Martínez’s days now start with meditation in addition to time on the treadmill. His therapy will continue, though some of it digitally. A journaling app on his phone called “Day One” also helps him cope in real time.

“We need to do what is good for us because if we don’t take care of ourselves first, we cannot help anyone,” he said.

“And I’m back as healthy as ever. And let’s move on. Let’s keep up the work.”

Principal Efraín Martínez participates in morning meditation at Orozco Community Academy. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Principal Efraín Martínez participates in morning meditation at Orozco Community Academy. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times