Sometimes, we don’t get to win or lose. This is especially true for teachers. After talking to a student today, I realized how much is out of my control. He came to tell me that he knew there wasn’t any point to take his final for my class
Me: “Why are you here then?”
Him: “My box.”
I have been teaching in the city long enough to realize that his box is an ankle monitor and he is court ordered to go to school. He was correct. Even if he took my final he would fail my class. The funny part or the sad part, I guess, is that this child is one of the smartest I have taught. This is his second year in my classroom and all I could do was nod. Agree. I felt helpless to have to agree to his failure, as if I was condoning it in someway.
Me: “So, what’s next?”
Him: “Not being here. I'm moving to the County."
The County is outside of Baltimore City and lots of my kids say they are going to the County, to escape the circumstances they are in, but those same children often come back. He told me that he has a mentor that will take him in.
Me: “How are you going to stay out of trouble? Can you study this summer?”
Him: “I have nothing to study.”
Me: “Reading is studying. Keeping your brain sharp."
Him: "I only like certain types of books. You know, true ones ... I know a man who should publish a book."
I nodded, unsure where the conversation was headed. This man, he said, went to prison but he never gave up on making a positive influence in the world. He wrote the judge 500 times asking for release into society so he could make a difference. According to my student, his request was eventually granted. He opened a construction company that worked with downtrodden individuals and people like himself, who needed a second chance.
Him: “I like those kind of stories, one’s where they get back up.”
My student’s mother is a crack head. He’s been arrested more times than I can count. He lives in a group home. If anyone has fallen down, if anyone needs to get back up, it is him.
Him: “Mom has a little house now and she’s getting her baby back soon.”
I might have said, “That’s good" or shaken my head slightly. It was one of those conversations where we were on two different planets. I grew up in another world. My empathy for my students has allowed me to connect to them and become someone they respect. Having taught them for so long, I often forget what divides us.
Him: “I’m going to college.” He said this as neither a question or a statement.
Me: “I know.”
As I looked at him, I saw every single obstacle standing in the way. All the drugs and the violence and the guns that live next to him, that live in him. I took the stories about his life and I tucked them in the part of me that still has room for that pain.
Me: “Maybe, you’ll be like that man. Maybe you’ll have a story that will inspire people.”
Him: “I can’t write books.” After a few seconds, an amused look crossed his face. He knew what I was going to say. “Or poems.”
Me: “A story doesn’t have to be a book. It can be a person.”
I remember meeting him two years ago and never wanting to see him in my class again. This year, I hoped every day that he would walk through the door. It’s funny how stories change.
He turned to walk away, his statements still clinging to all four walls.
Me: “Make sure you visit next year.”
Part of me hopes that he doesn’t. Part of me hopes that he stays out of the city, until the day he can come back and talk about getting off the ground. He failed my class. I don’t count it as a loss though. If I did, that would mean that I don’t think there’s a chance for him. My hope is a deep root, the determined weed that sinks so low that even a skilled gardener cannot remove its stubbornness.
Later that day I walked downstairs and grabbed an award that was placed in my mailbox. It was superlative that some of the students and teachers got together to make. “Most likely to succeed – Don’t forget us when you conquer the world.”
I thought back to a moment in college when I had nearly flunked out. I got alcohol poisoning and ended up in the back of an ambulance. I definitely didn’t imagine that one day I would be a teacher and an author. I didn’t even know if I would ever graduate college.
Outside the school building, I saw my student walking across the street. Please ... I closed my eyes ... let him conquer the world.
I don’t know if teaching will be something I do forever. The student’s though, their memories will be with me, always.