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.