Thursday, February 08, 2007

Graduation Day

Months ago, I mentioned a student here at the alternative high school that I teach at. He was among the handful of students whom I'd taken a very active interest in. In him, I saw a kid who was on the edge-- struggling to find himself, struggling with a lot of issues. And struggling to get out of his street gang.

He doesn't know it, but his street gang was responsible for the greatest loss of my life. I took it as a personal crusade that if there were any chance that he could get his diploma, and get away from that life, I'd stay on him.

When you talk to other teachers, one of the things they will tell you is that sometimes when you meet the parent, you suddenly understand the kid. This was definitely the case with him. After meeting one of his parents, I was astounded that he was even as functional as he was.

He didn't even have a class with me. But every day I'd stop and talk to him. He wasn't the best student, from what people told me, but he still kept showing up. And I could tell that he looked forward to talking to me.

This morning, he came to me and told me that he was passing all three of the classes he had this semester. Barely passing, I happened to know, but yes, passing. Tomorrow he will have a high school diploma. He hugged me and told me that he'd miss the teachers here. I had to fight back tears.

There's another student graduating tomorrow. Several of us have been her "angels," watching out for her. While my other student stood out because he's white-- the only white student here-- she stood out because she's black-- with purple hair. She's a little punk rocker. We discovered that she loves Incubus, Fallout Boy and Taking Back Sunday. Unlike most of the kids here, she's artsy and sensitive.

At first, she caught a lot of crap from the other kids. She doesn't like rap. She wasn't interested in the guys here. In my Spanish class, she actually learned Spanish, rather than just turn in enough work to pass, like most of the kids. In my friend Nicole's writing class, she actually wrote.

Things probably would have been easier for her if she'd have tried to fit in more-- if she hadn't had purple hair, if she hadn't worn her punk rock t-shirts under her school uniform shirt, if she hadn't worn the red Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars that are her signature. We teachers came to realize that not only was she unique and smart, but that she was tough as hell, too.

Tomorrow, she'll be getting her diploma, and moving on to college.

She reminds me a lot of my friend Mark. When he died, we got to meet his parents. They talked about how tough it was for a sensitive, artsy guy to grow up in a small town in central Illinois. To the end of his life, he did it his way-- his own unique style in life, clothes, music-- everything. he was willing to take an ass-whipping to do it his way.

When we cleaned out his house after his death, one of the things that we were able to laugh about were his clothes. There were certain things that he was always wearing.

Red Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars were among them.

When I took this job in August, it had pretty much landed in my lap. I took it because I needed it. As my wife can tell you, there have been days here that have taken their toll.

I had made the decision, for various reasons, to leave the teaching profession, and I still plan on it. Six months ago, I was shattered emotionally, and felt like I was barely functioning. Today, I feel good. I feel like the fates took me exactly where I needed to be.

I thought some of these kids needed me. I had no idea how much I needed them.

12 comments:

Mob said...

That's a really wonderful post.

I have a friend who teaches at a local alternative high school for the kids at high risk of dropping out, and she's found, much like what you've said, that the job is so rewarding just for the personal crusades she's undertaken with different students. Kids she knows have it in them to make it if they just get that little nudge in the right direction for a change.

Danny Tagalog said...

Yes. Wonderful.

And like your namechecking of "I'm Not Down". I went to uni almost 15 years after it was recorded, but the song pulled me out of a DEEP depression that hit me in the first few months. It has a basic message which struck gold within me when young.

Toccata said...

I think it's wonderful that you were able to look beyond your anger and sorrow and take this boy under your wing. It's like the best memorial you could ever give your friend.

Sometimes I find the most difficult thing about teaching is not being able to change what needs changing the most, the parents.

GETkristiLOVE said...

I wish I had something profound to say - maybe if there would have been a teacher like yourself in my past, it would come to me.

lulu said...

It is amazing how much difference a teacher can make in the life of a kid, and even more amazing how much difference a kid can make in the life of a teacher.

Thank you for reminding me why I do what I do.

vikkitikkitavi said...

I am intrigued by your comment about the kid's parent.

But what a great post, and how wonderfully you write, as well.

Erik Donald France said...

A beautiful post, as is the linked one.

Johnny Yen said...

Mob-
Thanks. As frustrating as this job has been, it's had its little victories. If you know you made a difference with even one kid, it's been worth it.

Danny-
Thank you. That song is really inspirational, isn't it? Over a quarter of a century later, I still find London Calling amazing. And now my almost-teenaged son listens to it.

Toccata-
Thank you. It's been healing. And yes, you're absolutely right-- we talk about "family values," but sometimes that is where the problem lies.

Kristi-
Given the quality of your writing, I'd say someone did a good job somewhere along the line.

Lu-
Isn't it? Sometimes it's not even what we do academically-- it's just being a friendly face when they desperately need it.

Vikki-
Thanks!

To be specific, it was clear that the woman was a drunk and not too aware of what her kids were up to. She also had a bag of excuses. Too bad, I've heard them all.

Erik-
Thank you

Bubs said...

Great job! Once again you post something that causes me to pull up and pause for a moment.

Those kids are lucky to have you. I know you feel lucky to have them.

Wings said...

Thank you for being there for them ...

Dale said...

I've said it before Johnny, you're a good man and have a quality soul.

Shellie said...

Great post. I have a friend of mine who really wanted to reach out to students. As a surprise for the graduates she had custom made t-shirts made for them! Great idea! These guys do a great job! thespiritzone.com