Saturday, June 16, 2007


Today we had the graduation ceremony for our seniors.

Last August, when I took this job, I was dealing with a lot. My father had just survived a cancer operation. The doctors had taken a tumor the size of a grapefruit out of his abdomen. I was "Riffed" (teacher slang for "laid off") from my job as a sixth grade teacher, a job I'd loved. A week before I left that job, one of my closest friends was murdered. Between it all, I felt like I'd recieved a body blow.

I spent last summer grieving my lost friend and trying to figure out my next step in life. The job market for teachers was terrbile last year. Most districts in the Chicago area had cut positions because of budget crunches. People I talked to couldn't even get an interview. I wasn't sure I even wanted to teach anymore; "No Child Left Behind" has had the perverse effect of taking the innovation and fun out of teaching.

In August of last year, I got a call from my old friend Karen Calhoun. She and I had become good friends while we were teaching seventh grade at a grade school in Chicago's tough Austin neighborhood. She had since left the school we'd taught at and was at an alternative school not too far from where we'd taught together before.

They needed a science teacher, she told me. I had a science endorsement. I took the interview and got the job on the spot.

Anyone who's read this blog regularly knows that it hasn't been easy. But today, all the tough times in the last year proved to be worth it.

Most of these kids were difficult. Most of them have had a rough time in life. Broken families. Absent parents. Parents with substance problems. Dealing with neighborhoods full of drugs, guns and gangs. Today, each one of them got past all the problems and disappointments so far in their lives and got a high school diploma.

We graduated nearly 100 kids today-- some from our school and some from our sister school. Here are some of my kids.

This is Ludovia. She was in my Physical Science class last semester. She finished my class through her pregnancy-- she missed the last month when she gave birth, but made sure to get the make-up work for all of her classes and did it at home. She came back after giving birth and finished her diploma. She's got a sunny personality-- she gets along with everybody. I'm certain that she'll do well in life.

Preston ended up with us after getting kicked out of Amundsen High School, not too far from my home, after getting in a fight he hadn't started-- part of the "zero tolerance" policy of the high school. We all found this amazing, because he got along with everybody-- students and teachers-- in an environment filled with conflict. He's intelligent, hard-working and a really nice guy. He was class Salutatorian.

He'll be attending Eastern Illinois University, where I got my bachelor's and master's degrees, this fall, studying Music.

LaShai was a kid who came to us late in the year. She started coming up in discussions at our meetings; she was a "plugger"-- a kid who quietly worked hard, without fanfare, and got things done. We talked about how we spent so much time talking about the problem kids, and how we were going to deal with them, and kids like her slip through the cracks, not getting attention.

Today, she got attention. She was class Valedictorian, and was given a "Teacher Recognition Award" we'd created for her.

This guy's name is "Mister." For real. He's one of the nicest kids I've ever had the pleasure to teach.

Truth be told, he didn't work all that hard in school. We didn't bust his chops over it-- he worked nights at Sam's Club. As someone who actually had a job, he was a novelty-- the rate of inner city teenage employment is the worst it's been in a couple of decades. According to today's New York Times, the employment rate for black teens from low-income families is 18%-- a little less than one in five. Mister happily defies those odds.

I expect him to be running a Fortune 500 company before he's 40.

I've mentioned Kyle in another blog post. He was one of my "projects." I didn't have him in any of my classes, but he seemed to look up to me. I took a little time with him every day. We must have done something right-- he kept coming to school. He wasn't the perfect student, but he finished. I was really happy to see him get his diploma today.

There was one other student I've mentioned before, another of everyone's favorites, Lena. With her purple hair and her red Converse Chuck Taylors, she stood out at our school. She was so quiet that we could only guess at who she was-- but we got a pretty good notion of it. When she showed up with her boyfriend, a metalhead who was wearing a Slipknot t-shirt, we realized we were right-- she is a kid who marches to her own tune, and won't let anyone else define her.

This year has been difficult, but healing. Sitting there, watching those kids get their diplomas, I realized how important this was to them. This was a badly-needed success for them, a step forward in life. I was happy to have been part of it.

On Friday, I gave my notice that I wasn't coming back next year. I had a feeling that they didn't want me back-- I hadn't made much of a secret that I wasn't very happy with the administration. And truth be told, I'm burnt out. I made a promise to leave teaching before I became the teacher I hated. It's time to leave. I was happy today, and satisfied that I was where I needed to be this year.

It was obvious, the appreciation that the students and their parents had for us, the faculty. It was a good feeling. But as I've mentioned before, as much as they thought they needed me, I needed them just as badly.


Anonymous said...

It's nice to see you felt like you made changes and did something-- i felt like this year was a total fucking WASTE and there have been no kids i felt overly attached to. I call those Dry Years and they're the pits. They're also more frequent as time goes by...

The dude's name is "Mister"?? Really? I don't know if that's cool or strange. Better than being called "Shuh-thay'd" and having your name spelled "Shithead". You'd THINK that's an urban legend, but I've seen the enrollment papers...

I always like to look at kids like that and say things like, "I expect great things from you. When you're rich and famous, I want you to remember who taught you how to reduce fractions in 5th grade."

Barbara Bruederlin said...

What a lovely way to end off the year, both from the aspect of celebrating your kids' successes and quitting that damnned school.

What's ahead for you?

Happy Father's Day, Johnny!

Skylers Dad said...

Happy Fathers Day Johnny! This was great to read, it is so cool that you have made a difference in these young kids lives.

lulu said...

Makes it all worth it. Almost.

I went to school at DePaul with a guy named Sirleithstire, pronounced Sir Lester. It was a family name.

Erik Donald France said...

Aye, Happy Father's Day, Johnny. Fantastic post and photos. Congratulations on a difficult job well-done! And a salute to summertime. . .

Amy Guth said...

Look atcha, looking all respectable! What a sweet post. You're a Good Egg, Yen.

Happy Father's Day!

'Bubbles' said...

Happy Father's Day, JY!

You look great with those kids. You made a difference. There is no way you did not, because of the way you describe your connection with them. Screw the administration and their crap. Those kids needed a connection, and it sounds like you made it happen (and perhaps you needed it, too - and that's a win for all).

Congrats on surviving a year of tough transition, too. Between my education and experience in "Organizational Change Management", and my own personal deal over the past two-plus years.... I get it and I respect it. Change is good, but it is a hell of a lot of work!!!!

We are here for you on this next step / phase / etc.!!! Or is it *you* here for us?....:-) Just more of that win for all stuff, I guess.

MacGuffin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bubs said...

Those pictures were fantastic, and a great way to cap the year! No matter what else, you can look at those kids and know you did something good and worthwhile. That's a gift.

Kathy said...

Again, nice writing about these students of yours, and about teaching in Chicago.

cheer34 said...

I hope you write books. I would be your number one reader/fan.

Happy Father's Day.

Splotchy said...

Great post. It's appropriate that many people say "Happy Father's Day" on this post, because teaching definitely has similarites to parenting -- a wish to impart some knowledge, a hope that lives have been positively affected, and a hope that things will turn out well for them.

You said "my kids". My mom was an 7th-8th grade art teacher would often talk of her students as her kids.

I'm glad you made a difference in yours.

Natalie said...

That makes me so happy to see. Graduating really an be a challenge for so many people. It came so easy to me that I didn't realize it until working with those underemployed youth that I see every day. I know you made a difference to your students.
I knew someone named Mister, it was funny but not as funny as my best friends childhood friend Master.

GETkristiLOVE said...

This post makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Thanks for your contribution to the young people of today.

Johnny Yen said...

Big Orange-
I'm sorry that you had a "dry year." My last couple of years in Cicero, I felt totally isolated and marginalized regarding the administrators, but there were kids I enjoyed working with.

I've said the same type of things to kids! "I hope you remember the little people who helped you on the way up when you're rich and famous."

When I worked in the projects, I had a lot of unusual or uniquely spelled names. I had one guy named Boris (this was a black kid, not a Russian). I remember one class, when I was subbing, I had three Tiffanies, all with different spellings, including unpronounced apostrophes.

Yes, you're right in both regards. I'm going to teach four weeks of summer school, which the administration has made very clear will be a big nothing-- field trips and not much else-- and then I'm done. But it was a good feeling knowing that a bunch of kids can move on with their lives as adults because of our work here.

Skyler's Dad-
Thanks! Hope yours was a good one too!

When I was a sub years ago, I had to call a new class roster nearly every day. It was funny, that kids that had unusual names were so incensed if I misprounced. I actually got pretty good at it.

Thanks! It's looking as though summer might be very busy-- I might be working three jobs.


When I walked into the room everyone was getting lined up, the kids kept saying "All rise." Many of them have actually, um, had a few dealings with the criminal justice system.

Anon. Blogger-
Thanks! It has been healing, particularly given the death of my friend. One of the kids pictured was in the gang that the guys who killed him were, and was trying to get out. Maybe that was part of why I was here this year-- to be part of that.

Yes, I think I'm going to be thinking about this year for a long, long time. Yes, it was a gift-- maybe something I really needed at that time.


It occurred to me long ago in my teaching career that I'm one of the only positive male role models a lot of these kids have. I get a good chuckle out of that, remembering my own, um, checkered past. But I keep coming back to something my ex-wife said about the time after her mother split and she'd come home to an empty house-- she remembered spending a lot of her time wishing someone would give a shit. And teachers, more often than not, she said, filled that void. She's also a teacher, btw.

Isn't it funny, that for people like us, there was just the assumption that we'd graduate? It's really sobering to realize that it's not the case for everyone. It's made me appreciate my family a lot more.

Master? Good lord!

You're welcome!