It was the fall of 1976, the first day of school at Sandburg Junior High School. The boy that walked into her ninth grade English class and took a seat in the front row was obviously trying to test her on her first day on the job.
The boy was wearing what looked like a plastic Halloween mask, two sizes too big for his small frame, one of those masks that grossly exaggerated people’s faces. When the boy got settled in his desk, March heard the rising clamor the boy’s mask was causing in her classroom.
March knew that as a young teacher, she had to make sure the students understood that she was in charge. If the boy did not take his mask off when the bell rang, she knew what she would firmly say to him: “Class has begun. Take that mask off.”
When the bell rang, March stood from her desk and turned to face the boy in the mask. Her jaw dropped as she looked directly, for the first time, at the face of 14-year-old Roy Lee “Rocky” Dennis.
His elongated, oval-shaped head was far too big for his frail frame, two holes appeared where his nose should have been and his eyes pushed out to the sides of his face, framed by a shock of curly red hair. This boy was not wearing a mask.
Before March could collect herself, Rocky stood at his desk, looking at the class schedule in his hand.
“Oh, I think I’m in the wrong class,” he said in a soft voice, seemingly oblivious to March’s horrified, open-mouth gaze. He then hurried outside to find his classroom.
More than 30 years later, March, now Barbara Silva, reminisces, “Had I said what I was going to say to Rocky that first day, I think I would have gone to the principal’s office and resigned right there. That would have been the end of my teaching career.”
‘If I make you uncomfortable, you can move. But I can’t change my face.’
Rocky Dennis, who was born in Glendora but lived for most of his life in Covina, is the most famous case of craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, an extremely rare genetic bone disorder that causes calcium to build up in the skull, horribly disfiguring the face. Most patients die in childhood. Rocky lived to the age of 16.
His story was made famous in the 1985 Peter Bogdanovich film, “Mask,” starring Cher and Eric Stolz. The film depicted Rocky’s teenage years, around the time Silva got to know Rocky.
Although Rocky wasn’t a student in Silva’s class, Silva worked with Rocky in group library activities with other English students.
She remembers the extremely bright, inquisitive boy, whose impish sense of humor and upbeat, confident demeanor made him popular among his peers, despite his appearance.
“If anyone showed signs that his appearance made them uncomfortable, he would say, kind of matter-of-factly, ‘If I make you uncomfortable, you can move. But I can’t change my face.’ It would be an icebreaker. He would put you at ease by addressing what was obviously bothering you, and say, 'It's okay, I get it,'” said Silva.
Students seemed to gravitate to Rocky. She recalls spotting another boy who notoriously struggled in her class, sitting attentively next to Rocky in the library as they worked on an English assignment together.
Glendora High School Principal Paul Lopez was a student at Sandburg at the time. He remembers Rocky did separate P.E. activities that accommodated his delicate physique. But Lopez will always remember the day when he and other students watched awestruck as Rocky was picked up from school in a three-wheel chopper.
Rocky’s love for Bruce Springsteen and motorbikes was no doubt inspired by his hard-living biker mother Rusty Dennis.
Her straightforward, no-nonsense approach often clashed with Rocky’s teachers.
“Let’s just say the film’s portrayal of his mother was much more kinder than she was in real life,” said Silva, referring to Cher's portrayal of Rusty Dennis. “But she had to fight for her son. And she did.”
In the teachers lounge, there were disapproving comments about his mother’s rowdy biker gang lifestyle, whispers about her drug use, even some speculating that her drug use caused Rocky’s deformity.
“But she raised an amazing kid,” said Silva. “So she must have done something right.”
“He made plans and dreamed as if he was going to live a very long life.”
Rocky’s upbeat attitude hid the excruciating pain that became worse as he got older. He always spoke softly, as if speaking any louder would cause more unbearable pressure in his skull. Legally blind by age six and hard of hearing, Rocky always sat in the front of the class. Silva and many of the students and teachers didn’t know it at the time, but Rocky’s condition was terminal. His skull would continue to grow until the weight of it crushed his brain.
“If he was suffering, he rarely let anyone see it,” said Silva. “He made plans and dreamed as if he was going to live a very long life.”
Rocky graduated from Sandburg Junior High with honors. In October of 1978, Rocky passed away in his sleep.
The news of his death cast a somber mood among faculty and students at Sandburg. Usually chatty middle school students spoke in hushed voices throughout the day.
“It just felt like the world wasn’t going to be that great of a place without him,” said Silva. “He made a difference.”
For Silva, just how much of a difference Rocky made would become apparent years later. Silva taught at Sandburg for two more years, married and moved to Texas.
Her first child suffered from seizures at nine months old and doctors diagnosed it as a neurological condition that would forever keep her daughter at an elementary school learning level.
Remembering Rocky, Silva told her husband, “If our daughter is going to be limited, it’s not going to be because we put limits on her.”
While her daughter continued to suffer from seizures, her condition was misdiagnosed. Now 31, Silva’s daughter is a graduate school student and living a normal life.
Silva also draws inspiration from Rocky in her current work as a life and business coach for Coaching Cognition.
“We talk a lot of setting the plans in motion to make changes in your life,” said Silva. “It takes years for a lot of people to learn the skill that for Rocky came naturally. If he couldn’t change it, he wasn’t going to dwell on it. He was going to focus on the things that he could change."
Silva said she still thinks about the student who accidently wandered into her classroom at Sandburg Junior High all those years ago. But it was Rocky, said Silva, who continues to teach her the most important lessons in life.
"He had a shortened life, but I'm grateful to have known him," said Silva. "I think a lot of people would say the same thing."