Af­ter tak­ing leave to cope with PTSD, CPS prin­ci­pal Efraín Martínez re­turns to job with an im­por­tant les­son about men­tal health


‘Yl­fitz­[email protected]­times.com | @by­lau­ren­fitz ou’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 fifth­grade 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

Efraín Martínez had al­ways em­pha­sized well­ness for the kids of Orozco El­e­men­tary, but it took a men­tal health cri­sis to learn the les­son for him­self: ‘If we don’t take care of our­selves first, we can­not help any­one.’

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.”

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.

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.

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: A 5-year-old girl from 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.”


Efraín Martínez med­i­tates with the help of the “Daily Calm” app at his home on the South­west Side.


ABOVE: Prin­ci­pal Efraín Martínez greets stu­dents at Orozco El­e­men­tary on Nov. 19. LEFT: The burn­ing land­scap­ing truck that stopped Efraín Martínez and turned him into a hero.

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