Sixth-grade teacher Matt Shaw has had hundreds of students during his 17-year teaching career at Salida Middle School, but none have made quite the impression Kwa’Wayne Defils has.
“I think he is a remarkable young man, the things he has been able to accomplish despite the adversity he’s faced. Through all the challenges he went through, he never gave up,” Shaw said of Defils, who’s newly graduated from the police academy at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton.
But it was the impression Shaw made on Defils throughout his adolescence that helped shape the young man’s life.
Defils grew up in a housing project in Oakland with five brothers and sisters and two stepsiblings. The neighborhood was marred by drug dealing and prostitution. Robbery, assaults and domestic violence were common.
His stepfather, a convicted felon, was emotionally and physically abusive.
When Defils was 8, he and his older brother hid weapons around the house to protect their mother after their stepfather broke her nose and they found her lying on the floor in a pool of blood.
The family lived off Defils’ mother’s minimal government assistance, which sometimes wasn’t enough to pay the bills. He can remember times as a child when they lived without water, power or gas, and at one point, without furniture.
But Oakland was his home.
So when his family moved to Salida before Defils’ sixth-grade year in 2001, he experienced culture shock.
“It was a transition moving from an urban area to what you would probably call a little hole in the world, Salida,” he said with a chuckle. “I moved there without any friends … we didn’t know what we were getting into.”
Defils was always the “smart one” in the family. He knew how to be a good student, but he had a propensity for defiance, and authority figures made him defensive.
Finding a supporting figure
“He had just moved here from Oakland and he was pretty rough around the edges and didn’t want to be told what to do by anyone,” Shaw remembered. “Some way through his sixth-grade year, I noticed that he was very intelligent and had a very good sense of humor. Even though he might cause a little disruption in his class, I thought it was funny and let it go … to an extent. He was able to pick up on these clues when it was enough.”
Shaw remembers one day he thinks might have been a turning point in their relationship. Defils walked into the classroom late, carrying a basketball. He slammed the ball on the ground, causing the whole classroom to turn and look.
Shaw didn’t yell at him or ridicule him in front of the class, but told him to go outside.
He knew Defils was angry about something, but he explained to him – in private – that he couldn’t let that affect that rest of his day.
Defils said he doesn’t recall that particular day but remembers that Shaw took him into his homeroom after the first trimester when his original homeroom teacher decided he was too much for her to handle.
“As a teacher, he is really kind and his approach to students is really special; it’s without any harsh criticism,” Defils said “He is really assertive but still passionate and compassionate. I’d get edgy with Mr. Shaw in the beginning, but he’d just keep talking to me and bringing me back down to earth.”
Shaw became more than a teacher to Defils.
“Mr. Shaw was always one of those father figures I could talk to,” he said. “I was always the honor student in my family, but I was never praised or awarded. When I played basketball a lot of times, no one from my family would come, and I kind of felt alone. But (Shaw) was always that supporting figure that stayed around.”
Following ‘the right path’
Now 24, Defils is polite and courteous. He’s clean-cut and muscular and has a perpetual smile and contagious laugh.
He has worked as a server, janitor and salesman, sometimes two jobs at a time. Every bit of his earnings has gone to his family and to his education.
Defils put himself through junior college, earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice, and last Saturday graduated from the police academy at Delta.
Ever since a police officer who visited his Oakland neighborhood during a crime prevention event let him turn on the lights and sirens in the patrol car, Defils has wanted to be a police officer.
“I have always just wanted to help the community and confront a problem before it rises,” he said. “If I am out there, I think I can make a change in some way. If I can just change one person, then it’s worth it.”
Like he has nearly every year since graduating from Salida Middle School more than a decade ago, Defils stopped by the school Thursday to visit Shaw and his new class of sixth-graders.
Shaw introduced Defils to the class, saying, “He easily could have ended up in prison. He could have taken the easy way out and sold drugs on the streets in Oakland for money, could have gotten involved in gangs, but he didn’t do any of those things. He knew those things were wrong … he followed the right path.”
Shaw asked his class, “Life is full of what?”
“Choices,” they answered in unison.
“How should you choose?”
‘Smart, proud and strong’
Defils chose carefully despite his circumstances. His brother, the one who helped him hide weapons to protect their mother when they were children, took an entirely different path. He is now serving a 32-year sentence in prison for armed robbery.
“Something I always told myself is, ‘Keep away from most and close to a few,’ ” Defils said.
Shaw was one of those few, a “guiding hand,” for Defils.
Their relationship grew when Defils worked as Shaw’s teaching assistant in seventh and eighth grade. During that time, the youth opened up about his home life.
After winning an award for being the most improved student and graduating from middle school, Defils’ family moved back to Oakland.
Shaw sent Christmas letters and birthday cards, and at least once a month, they would talk on the phone, sometimes just to catch up, other times to work through difficulties Defils was facing.
Shaw also sent care packages with items like socks and hygiene products.
Before his junior year in high school, Defils’ family moved back to the Valley, this time to Stockton.
As soon as the teen got his license and a car, he began making surprise visits to his former middle school. Like on Thursday, he often talked to the class, telling the students about his struggles, and providing an example of what hard work and perseverance can accomplish.
Defils has applied to several Valley police agencies and is in the background review process with the Lodi Police Department. He also was approached by a lieutenant from the Modesto Police Department who encouraged him to apply.
He started his first semester at California State University, Stanislaus, on Thursday, with a major in sociology.
Defils still has a lot of hard work ahead of him, and he’s the sole breadwinner for his mother, three younger sisters and a niece and nephew, with whom he lives in a four-bedroom apartment. But his future is promising.
He and Shaw had a motto. “SPS,” Defils said. “It stands for smart, proud and strong.”
Defil is all those things, Shaw said.
“When I first started teaching, I told myself that if I could just make a difference in one young person’s life, all the other not-so-great things about teaching would all be worth it,” he wrote in a blog post the day Defils graduated from the academy. “For me, it was a very satisfying and joyous day.”