As a special education teacher at Pleasanton Middle School, Christopher Lee, 40, brings the street smarts earned from fights and a near-death experience to working with youngsters who face special challenges.
“I came to the United States from South Korea when I was 9 years old,” said Lee, who remembers the stark contrast between Korea and southern California. The violent neighborhood where his parents lived offered a number of challenges.
Growing up around gangs, Lee navigated his way through daily life. He knew getting an education was important, but he also needed to survive. Getting in fights was inevitable, he said.
But despite the violence, Lee was a curious boy and loved to learn. In middle school he decided to learn to play the cello.
“The school allowed me to borrow a cello,” Lee said. “But one day on a bus several boys made fun of me, and one grabbed my cello case and threw it out the window.”
Lee saw the case bounce along the street as he got the driver to stop the bus.
“The cello was in pieces,” he said. “After that, I decided being an athlete was safer.”
The incident that prompted Lee to leave Los Angeles occurred one evening after he was accepted at USC and yet found himself in another fight: “A fellow walked up and put a loaded revolver to my head,” Lee said. “As he started pulling the trigger, I knew I was dead. But for some reason the gun didn’t go off.”
That was the night Lee, then 19, decided to drive north with no destination in mind.
In time, he worked in the hospitality industry, joined the military, worked as a financial advisor, earned both bachelors and masters degrees, and eventually heard a calling to work with troubled and special education youth where he uses his life experiences to connect with students and make a difference.
Today Lee has worked in Pleasanton for eight years has two children, an eight-year-old daughter and a ten-year-old son.
Along with coaching youth sports and working as a teacher, Lee is an artist and maintains a studio in downtown Livermore. His paintings exude the same passion Lee has about life: “I wake up every day with a positive outlook and a focus on goals,” he said. “I have a bucket list and try to cross off one item each month.”
One item he recently checked off the list was parachuting from an airplane. His next goal is to climb Mount Shasta.
While a favorite quotation is Socrates’ observation that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Lee credits the birth of his children with his own true awakening: “It is with absolute certainty that I did not take my first true breath on this earth until my children were born,” he said. “Through their birth, I have been reborn.”
To watch Lee skydive, click here.