Saturday, November 19, 2005

Fomer Students

Current sophomore J. emails, dropping my first name in a way that makes me think she thought about it for a while, and the news seems good.

"my grades are the way i expected and you expected them 2 B im proud of myself and the reason i decided to email you was because i was lookn threw some of my middle school stuff and i saw the letter that you gave me the last day of school!! it made me realize that you did care for me as a smart student!!"

I respond with congratulations and good wishes, also letting her know her grammar makes me wonder if she actually retained anything I taught, but I'm definitely happy for her, unable to resist dropping a mild suggestion that perhaps ("well im gonna let you go cuz class is over") class time is better spent, um, learning. I don't mention that I feel horrified that I do not remember what the hell I wrote in that letter. I don't mention how embarrassed I am, and saddened, and how the whole things makes me feel like a dick.

Before Saturday Academy starts C. pops her head in. She's a freshman at a new charter high school that apparently gives her 10 minutes of homework. I express shock ("You had an hour from just me in 7th grade!") but she says she likes it and is learning, so what do I know. Then she tells me that G., who she "was with" and who would have been in the second semester of his freshman year, is in jail.

And I see those black spots in front of my eyes. Because G. was my guy during my second year. A kid whose brother/family pulled him into Sureno-shit, he fails the first quarter, clashing with me over control of the classroom. We talk, we connect, and suddenly he starts doing it. Homework, all five assignments, done every night. Nearly 100% of all skills mastered. Progression through High Point B to High Point C, and into grade level programs in HOLT. Classroom participation, leadership, and great contributions, and who cared that his head was shaved, shorts hung low, and socks were yanked high? His mother bawled in the parking lot
when I told her in my halting Spanish how proud I was.

In another parking lot, far away from his mother, he got himself involved in a stabbing, and is now behind bars.

I believe in the power of education. I believe in the empowerment that comes from the acquisition of basic academic skills. I believe that you cannot reform a machine this big without participating in it, and therefore I believe that we must prepare these kids with the tools they need to carpenter themselves a new place in the run of things. I believe the stakes are incredibly high, and that what I offer each day is powerful. I believe these things are silver bullets that can strike at the werewolves of poverty, gangs, drugs, self-limiting failure.

And now I'm not so sure. We failed this kid. We have enjoyed unprecedented success on my campus, and made great strides, but we failed this kid. Not in the way that speaks of falling through the cracks, or being allowed to not-learn. Somehow we failed him in a way that makes everything we do seem paltry and frail. He met our expectations, or enough of them that pretty much no one would stand up and say we gotta be doing more, we can't lose this kid. But we did. He took what we offered, owned it, and it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough. Somewhere people are arguing about benefits packages and school choice and facilities agreements and yard duty, and at the fundamental level, it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough.


Blogger Johanna said...

I'm so sorry. That story really is heartbreaking.

4:18 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

Our society has failed him. You as his teacher have done an enormous amount for him, more than most people - even many other educators - expect to do for their students. That boy's story isn't over, though it has taken a turn for the worst. What you did for him is still with him, the memory that he was successful once, in school, that he knew things and cared about knowing them. And you have no idea what role that memory might play in the rest of his story.

As for the first girl - it doesn't matter that you don't remember what you wrote. You meant it when you wrote it, and it meant something to her when she read it. Of course it would be nice to remember every detail of everything you say to a student, but you will write hundreds or thousands of letters in a career of teaching, and they will do their work and will mean something to your students long past when you could ever expect to remember your words.

As a teacher, you have to take responsibility without deciding you (or public education) have failed every time a student makes a bad decision or lands in trouble. Don't stop feeling personally responsible, but at the same time, remember that education is just one piece of the puzzle - NOT a silver bullet.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous Ms. J said...

You are a good man. And you are right about the power of education. But sometimes, despite the miracles performed every day in classes like yours, the "werewolves" prevail. When that happens, we scream in anguish, maybe get drunk to drown our broken hearts, and then go right back into the classroom to re-engage. We live in a society that fails too many. What else is there to do, but to keep keep teaching? Your students are so lucky to have you.

7:51 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Thanks. Seriously.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

My daughter attends a no-red, no-blue school. I understand why that's necessary for the safety of the school climate and a lot of the individual kids. But a lot of the middle class parents ask, why is this law-enforcement issue the school's responsibility?

Well, obviously the school needs to do whatever it needs to to keep its campus and its students safe. But otherwise, I agree -- this is not the responsibility of the school, nor of individual teachers. I don't believe you failed.

I keep waiting to hear something about the fact that pretty much every single Norteno and Sureno is a baptized Catholic -- that's the institution that's SUPPOSED to teach them right from wrong.

5:39 PM  

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