For anyone in education, you know that every now and then there is that one kid who tugs at your heart-strings more than the rest of your students. You see their latent potential and the good they can do for their community, and you push them harder, give them extra encouragement, but sometimes the circumstances of their lives are much greater than anything you can do. Despite your best efforts, they get away.
John* wasn’t a typical student in my Health Academy cohort English class. The most obvious reason being was that he was not in the Health Academy (he got shuffled into my class). The not-so obvious one was that he had trouble with the law. On the first day of school he sat directly in front of me, and as I looked at his name and his features, my stomach sank with the realization that I had had his older brother in another class who excelled at keeping his desk in place by frequently falling asleep on it and once refreshed from his naps was very disruptive. But John didn’t have the same hard edge of his brother; he was quiet and inquisitive.
He was not focused at the beginning of the semester; he was clearly out of his element among the more academic and motivated students who populated the Health Academy. He barely did any work and was frequently off task, but was never rude or talked back. I checked in with him all of the time. Our first struggle was about a notebook, which I expected every student to have and was a major portion of their grade. He didn’t have money to buy one and used that as an excuse to not do work. I gave him one and told him he could pay me back later, not expecting that to ever happen. Every excuse he gave me, I countered. It went on and on like this. But there were glimmers of intelligence. On the random days he decided to work, he asked relevant and insightful questions, understood the assignments, and made connections. It was all there. But how would I get him to create a product of learning? It began to nag at me that my efforts would be in vain, but I kept pushing him.
Then a couple of months later he brought me the money to pay me back for the notebook and enough to buy another one (I keep this money on hand for when students need it for copies, etc.). Then he began to work. Then he began to raise his hand. Then he began to volunteer to read. Then he began to help others. When I chose a student to answer a question and they stumbled or froze, he would quietly lean over and point to where they could find the information in the book or whisper a word to jog their memory. During presentations, he would help other students set up. The other students began requesting that he read aloud (he read very well). When I called his mother to inform her of his change of behavior, she was shocked, “You’re telling me that my son is popular? For the right reasons?!”.
Soon we began our most challenging project: an author study that included a book report, an essay connecting the author’s life to his or her work, a poster or power point of the information learned, and a professional presentation. If a student was going to be crushed academically by anything in my class, this was it. I told my students to write about which author they wanted to study with an explanation why. He wrote, “I’m choosing Walt Whitman, because I know you’ll help me.” If my students learn one thing in my class, they learn I love Whitman. He and I talked about Whitman’s Civil War poems, and he brought me questions everyday about what certain lines meant. Another one of his teachers and I are good colleagues, so she encouraged him to do his best and gave him class time to work on the project. He struggled, but he read the poems and research, wrote the essay, created a powerpoint, and presented. It was all very rough, a hallmark of his not ever having done this before, but the effort was there. I don’t think I could have been more proud of him.
Then the new term began, and I fretted about his current success. I emailed his current teachers about him and what he was capable of achieving. The news back was not good. One doubted my claims, because John was a “knucklehead” in his class. Another told me that he wasn’t showing up to his. Finally, I spotted John on campus and confronted him. He admitted that he was not doing well. We discussed his future and I shared my belief that he could put his kindness and empathy to work helping others, and he would be successful. He could do it. I stated my expectation of him graduating high school and that when he took his diploma that he would hear me screaming the loudest (besides his mother), and if he didn’t, “you’d scream the loudest,” he completed. A week later he stopped by my classroom after school and told me that he was going to do better; he made the decision to improve. He would do it.
The following week he ran away.
His counselor told me that he was safe and was not involved in trouble, but he was no longer attending school. I think about him often and where he is now and where he’s going to end up. The challenges he’s facing in life are unimaginable, and I hope he finds a way to live up to his potential. I wonder if we could have done anything as a staff to help prevent this turn of events. Maybe we could have prevented his running away; maybe the problems of his life overshadowed anything we could do. But still, I sit and wonder; this is the remnant of those who get away.
*His name has been changed.