Today I had a couple of experiences that set me thinking about my own high school career. First, I subbed in another teacher’s class for one period. It was an AP Government class and the easiest gig ever since the kids had assignments to work on. To break up the monotony of grading I scanned a textbook and some review guides, and I was soon filled with longing and the wish that my teachers in high school challenged me more. Second, I had a conversation with a student after school about financial aid and scholarships; he was reluctant to apply for scholarships because they required letters of recommendation, and he didn’t want to burden his teachers by asking for one. Just from knowing him for a term, I also suspected he was afraid we’d say no if he asked. Or it could’ve just been me projecting myself from high school on him. I wish my teachers had spoken to me about my potential and college.
The high school I graduated from is located in one of the top districts in the state; it provided a good education. There were also some really stand-out teachers that I remember: Mr. Williams for his big booming voice and making Literature fun; Mr. C for making biology understandable; and Mr. Afifi who supported my fruitless endeavors in Algebra II, and passed me anyway (“Amy, you’re terrible! terrible! at math, but A for effort.”). The teacher I wish was had been a stand-out and taken notice of me was Mr. Battle. He taught freshman English for boneheads. I ended up in that class because I had been ill the previous year, missed a lot of school, and my grade plummeted. He presented the material, scored our work, went home. He never engaged with or made connections with his students, and I was summarily pushed along to Bonehead English 10.
Bonehead English 10 was taught by Mr. Hall, a thin, wiry, runner of a guy who loved to say carrot in Spanish (“ZaaaannnnaaaHORia!”). He was full of energy, made jokes with us, and after a couple of days in his class asked me, “Why are you in this class? You don’t belong here.” He tried to get me into his regular English class, but it the place was taken by another student. “Well,” he reflected, “since you’re here, you can help me teach.” The following year when I was in the school paper, he sent me the article with a note that read, “See! I knew you’d be famous!”
Even though I performed well in his class, my counselors passed me along to the next bonehead class of Greek mythology. Again, my teacher Mrs. Chamberlain asked, “What are you doing here?”. Again, I could not transfer out. I had great fun in her class learning about the different gods and goddesses, but in the middle of the term when we switched English classes, she advocated to put me into American Lit. This time it stuck.
I missed out on two and a half years of regular college prep English. While I am fortunate that I not only had one, but two, teachers see that I didn’t belong, I really wish my freshman teacher had noticed as much. I wonder what life would have been like had I started where I should have. Could I have gotten the opportunity to prove myself and be suggested for AP English? Or was my fate determined in the eighth grade? In many of my classes I was just a number, but I still put in a lot of effort because I like to do well. However, if a teacher had pulled me aside and said, “Amy, your thoughts on such and such were perceptive” or something along that line, I would have done my best for that teacher. It wasn’t until I started my classes for my major in college that I really saw my potential as a student.
Even though I had a 3.67 GPA and had club, volunteer, and work experience, when it came to applying to colleges and writing letters of recommendation, I didn’t feel like I had much to offer. Who would give me money? I was average. In retrospect, I had a lot going for me, but I didn’t know it then, nor did I see how all of my experiences would work together on an application. I didn’t apply for any scholarships and applied for only one state college.
So today as I spoke to my student about scholarships and letters of recommendation, I became quite emphatic. He hemmed and hawed about asking for letters and applying for scholarships. I told him his reasons for not asking were full of crap and teachers were there to write letters for good students such as himself. We’re there to support him so he can go on and have a good job and have the opportunity to write another young person a letter. At some time in his life, he would pay it forward. He said he’d wait after high school to do it, and I smacked him with my book (gently, of course). As I barked that he would get the letters now, my black flat slipped off my heel. I reached down to fix it and he asked, “Are you going to hit me with your shoe now?”. Another student who had been listening in piped up, “Dude, she wants you to ask her. She’ll write you one.” He responded, “I’ll ask next week.” I walked behind my desk and sat down: “No, you’re going to ask me now.” “Now?!” I nodded, “Now.”
He came up to my desk and asked. I said yes. There was no way that he was not going to have the resources to apply for a scholarship or let his low self-esteem get in the way of future of opportunities or lead to a future of “what-ifs” (if I could help it).