Carlo Matos commands attention at the front of his classroom, taking big steps and making sweeping arm gestures as he and his students parse the first sentences of Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street.”
It’s the second day of class for students in English 99 at Truman College. That’s a remedial class, and it’s one of Matos’ favorites to teach.
Remedial classes are rarely viewed as a choice assignment by professors. Let alone for someone like Matos, who has a doctorate degree and is a published playwright. He just wrapped up a book of poetry, and his scholarly writings have appeared in a prestigious academic journal.
But the classes, known as developmental courses at the City Colleges, are Matos' passion.
“I really feel like these are the students that I connect with,” Matos says. “When I feel most alive as a teacher, is almost, not always, but almost invariably because of that class.”
The concepts Matos tries to convey are basic – What do we know about the characters from the first page? Why do they move around so much? What can we assume about their living situation? – but Matos prods students to come up with the answers themselves.
Alan Meyers, the chairman of Truman’s communications department, says Matos brings a level of energy and enthusiasm to the classroom that gets students engaged.
“These are, by and large, CPS students who are used to being treated badly and used to being told they’re failures,” Meyers says. “And he elicits an entirely different response from them.”
Matos grew up in Fall River, Mass., the son of factory worker parents who immigrated from the Azores. Matos calls his hometown a “horrible, miserable little place.”
“I had nothing growing up and I had many of the same issues (my students) had,” he says. “I didn’t really fit in, I wanted to succeed but didn’t know how. By the time I realized all that was ahead of me, college and all that, I realized, A, I didn’t have any money and B, I didn’t know how to do it.”
But he persevered, ultimately earning his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst shortly after he joined the City Colleges almost four years ago.
Matos usually teaches remedial and basic writing classes at Truman, but he’s also a prolific creative writer with several plays to his name and a recently completed manuscript for a book of poetry. Meyers wants Matos to start teaching an introductory drama class, but that hasn’t happened yet because the college hasn’t gotten enough students to sign up.
“When I was very young, just haphazardly, because of my personality, I walked into theater,” Matos says.
A teacher asked him if he wanted to be in a play, and without knowing what that meant, he said yes. Fast forward, and it’s now a passion for Matos. He’s twice traveled to Italy to take part in summer playwriting workshops.
His plays have gotten several staged readings at Chicago Dramatists, an incubator for emerging playwrights. One was performed off-off-Broadway in New York City and an article of his about the playwright Henrik Ibsen was recently published in Modern Drama, an academic journal.
Mary-Terese Cozzola, one of his peers at Chicago Dramatists, says his plays are humorous but also tackle difficult emotional subjects.
“That was the first thing that struck me, was a sort of acerbic wit, and also the fact that he seems to be pretty comfortable with pain and he’s not afraid of going places with his plays that I think can be difficult to talk about,” Cozzola says.
One of his most recent plays, “Frost Heaves Melinda,” is set in Chicago. He draws inspiration from the mannerisms of the people he sees as he rides the bus three hours each day between his far West Side apartment and Truman.
“To get the idioms right, to get the rhythms, even the sayings, it’s from the bus rides,” Matos says. “You hear crazy things on the bus and it’s very easy to steal — I mean, borrow.”
He tries to bring his passion for theater back into the classroom, Meyers and other professors say, simply through his animated style.
Matos tells the story of a student of his from Nigeria to illustrate the growth he often sees. The student had mental health issues and struggled, but kept coming to Matos for help on his classwork.
“He works his butt off, is in my office, writes a million drafts, this is not something most (English) 99 students do,” Matos says.
A year, he heard from another professor that the student was getting all A’s and B’s in English 101, a college-level class.
“The ones that do come back,” Matos says, “it’s sometimes quite ridiculous to see how much they’ve learned.”
Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.