The One

One of the issues I’ve had this year is that I haven’t really connected to my seniors.  In general, I really like them all (well, most of them), but compared to last year’s graduating class that had so many students that I had spent so much time with and watch grow up, this year’s class just doesn’t inspire that “tug” in me.  So much so that I have been considering not going to this year’s graduation in May.  Graduation ends late in the evening, I live an hour away, and last year was so emotional that sitting it out is very appealing.  Maybe a couple of kids will be disappointed.  The prospect of not listening to “Pomp and Circumstance” again sat well with me.

But as always, there’s the “one”.

I met Xi by chance last year during sophomore state testing when students who were not being tested were sent to my room for study hall.  I did not know most of the students, but they made themselves at home and quietly studied.  Not Xi.  She came up to my cupboard and my desk to look at all of my pictures and ask me about all of them: Who was this girl in the prom dress?   Was she a good student?  How about that boy?  Is that a picture of you?  Is that your husband?  And on and on.  For two days we chatted, and afterwards I would say “hi” to her when I saw her on campus.

This year she’s my student in my English 12 class.  “I asked for you,” she informed me during the first week of school.  She has been a diligent student and continues to ask me all kinds of questions.  More than any other student, she has been in my class after school asking for help and feedback.  She read ahead during Pride and Prejudice and borrowed my new graphic novel version.  It is now well-worn.  Through the term she has shared her life with me– growing up as an immigrant, teaching herself at school since her parents don’t know English, and facts about her ever-shifting home life.  She stared at me horrified when I suggested that we beat the snot out of the printer when it wasn’t working, “Oh no, Ms. L, we can’t do that!”, and was visibly relieved when it finally produced her essay.  The printer would live to see another toner cartridge.  She has signed up to be my TA next term, and she has joined my book club and cried over the atrocities in Night.

She has personal tears to shed as her mother is currently in the last stages of cancer, and I’m not sure how much longer she will be around.  Xi has been very courageous and determined during this time by maintaining her school work and completing a demanding research project.  Her goal has been to make her family and her mother proud.

Today she let me know that she would be missing the rest of the week so she can spend time with her mom.  Redness tinged her eyes as she said, “My mom doesn’t look like my mother anymore.”  She got out her phone and showed me pictures of her and her mother in the hospital.  She held herself together until she had a realization.

Tears streaming down her cheeks, she whispered, “My mom won’t see me graduate.”

If ever I needed a reason to hear “Pomp and Circumstance” again, it is for Xi.

A Big Glass Of Wine

Today marks the end of my fifth year of teaching.  What is remarkable is that I’m going back next year for my sixth.  Why is this remarkable?  Statistics show that 50% of teachers leave the profession by their fifth year.  I made it.  I survived. That said, I’m uber-tired and I understand why some don’t go back.  It takes a l0t out of you.

This has been an incredibly emotional and stressful week.  My sleep has been poor– my body has been waking me up at ungodly hours in the morning, which is really ungodly, since my alarm is set for a time that is ungodly to most.  When I don’t get enough sleep, I get a massive headache that spans my shoulders, my neck, my skull, and everything it contains.  Then there’s the goodbyes.

Our music teacher is leaving us, and on Monday I went to see her choir students perform.  In her group is one of my goofballs who I wanted to support.  My doofus who is disruptive and weird in class had a SOLO while he was holding hands with a girl (all things I never thought possible).  He looked proud and was professional.  My thoughts included, “Who the hell is he?”, “Wow, he’s good!,” and “Why the hell doesn’t he act this way in my class?”.  The rest of the show was amazing, too.  They sang Broadway hits and ended with a medley from Phantom of the Opera.  Pardon my language, but my only thought about the whole show was, “Holy shit!”  They were good.  The tears flowed when during the end all of the choir alumni who were in the audience flash-flooded to the stage to pay their former teacher their respect.  The stage was full of current and past students letting her know how much she means to them.  After the show I went backstage to find my doofus, and many of my former students were there and then I was showered with hugs. I found my doofus, congratulated him on his performance, and he, too, gave me a hug.  The next day in class he was the most accommodating student ever.  It turns out that I had to say good-bye to him also, since he will attend another school next year.

Then there’s my seniors.  Yesterday was spent at graduation practice as rehearsed our roles and responsibilities.  I volunteered to be a reader of names as the students went to get their diplomas.  I had hoped to read one of my all-time favorite’s (aka. “niece”) name, but I still had many students who I adored names to read.  The microphone was just a bit too tall, so I stood on my tip-toes to reach it.  Looking at all of my kids getting ready for their big night made me teary.  Then last night was the real deal.  The stadium was packed with families with posters, signs, and cow-bells (which I have determined are just as annoying as wind chimes).  Everyone was so excited.  The kids smiled so brightly once they spotted their parents and family cheering them one.  Their excitement was palpable.  I read my names to the cheering crowd without screwing up too much.  Afterwards we all congregated outside as students found their friends and teachers to take pictures with.  I saw more former students and said goodbye to the graduates.

One of my students wrote me a touching note in my yearbook, but she had forgotten to give me a graduation picture of her.  Somehow, she gave a photo to her cousin who hunted me down during the ceremony and managed to get the picture to me.  Up until that point,I had had no idea how much I meant to her.  I found her afterwards and she was in an emotional state.  I tentatively went up to her and her family and she rushed toward me, gave me a hug, and sobbed into my shoulder. Out of all of my five years of teaching, I don’t think I’ve been moved by anything more.  Tears still come to my eyes as I write this.

In this midst of all of this craziness and goodbyes, I still had essays to grade, scores to enter, a classroom that looked like a tornado hit it to clean up, and my sophomores who still needed my attention.  It was all a bit too much.  One of my sophomores who also loves ducks, but who wouldn’t speak even if you held a gun to her head (not that I tried), came up to me after school Wednesday with a package of three rubber ducks: a cheerleader duck, a princess duck, and a surfer duck (none of which I had). She said, “This is for you” and gave me a hug.  Today I pointed out how they were now integrated into my duck collection and she uttered her next two words, “I noticed.”  Then I graded their To Kill A Mockingbird projects, and all of them did really well.  Normally there’s some crap in there, but this time everyone did a great job.

Today was a fog of cleaning up and trying to make sense of my room.  I was, frankly, too tired to deal with it.  I tossed a lot out, dusted some stuff, but my cupboards are a mess.  Finally I said, “screw it” and left for summer break.

Now I am at home with my hubby.  He has poured me a big glass of wine.  And you know what?  I deserve it.

As We Send Them Off…

As I wrote yesterday, the class of 2012 is quite remarkable.  Tonight we are celebrating their accomplishments and the ending of an old life and the beginning of a new one.  To my graduates I’d like to share this little nugget:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. —Mark Twain

Having A Senior Moment

Tomorrow night is graduation and I will have to say goodbye to my students who have been a part of my life for the last few years.  As they get their diplomas and set sail off on their new journey, I feel like I am left behind on shore.  The past few days they have streamed into my classroom giving me pictures and notes, signing my yearbook, and imploring me to “not forget them.”  I sign their yearbooks and pose for pictures while giving them those teacherly words of wisdom while hiding the fact that I will be lonely without their presence on campus.  I am seriously going to miss them.

I started teaching in 2007.  As a new teacher I hadn’t found my niche in the school.  I just tried to wade through my curriculum and get a hang of classroom management.  I advised a couple of different clubs, but nothing seemed to gel. This changed when I became part of our school’s Health Career Academy and became an advisor for HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America).   My role was to assist with the academy and teach a cohort class. I got my first group in the fall of 2009; they were all sophomores in my English Honors class. I had never met such a lively, motivated, and positive group before.  Everyday was fun.  I taught, they learned.  I assigned; they embraced.  I presented an idea; they ran with it.  I went with them on field trips and attended their meetings.  Then in the summer of 2010, after the state leadership conference where one of them qualified for nationals in Orlando, I was chosen to escort her.  She and I left as student and teacher; we came back “niece” and “aunt”.

That fall my “niece” was the president of Academic Decathlon and they needed a new coach.   Now I have been coaching AcaDec for two years, and had the opportunity to meet more students.  In my first year I took 41 students to competition, and this year it was 57.  My team met twice a week practicing speeches, interviews and essays while studying the art, music, history, literature, and science of specific time periods.  These kids love learning.  Tomorrow, half of my team is graduating.

In the 2010-2011 school year I taught a cohort of juniors American Lit.  This year I decided to take on a new challenge and teach seniors for the first time.  In my three classes I had many familiar faces from the last two years and many more new faces.  They rose to the challenge of media analysis, creative writing, literary theory, OthelloPride and Prejudice, and Like Water For Chocolate while writing five essays for their senior portfolio.  Everyday there was laughter and probing of ideas.  Even though my spring term students got hit hard by senioritis, they managed to pull it together and pass.

Through all of this I’ve watched them grow up and try new things. They made plans, got jobs, and dealt with time management. I’ve seen hook-ups and break-ups, making new friends and falling outs. I did my best to challenge them and they, too, challenged me.  So tomorrow night it will be bittersweet as they receive their diplomas.  We both have worked hard to get them to this point and beyond. As their teacher and advisor,  I feel like I have grown up with them and found my place in my school. They will leave and I will stay.  Where are they going? Stanford, Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, the CSU’s, the US Naval Academy, the armed forces, and community college. This graduating class is going places.

Where will I be?  Back in my room with my sophomores to begin this process again.


The Ones That Get Away

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.