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Monday, February 15, 2016

Way back when...

I first started teaching, I had a moment with a student that has stuck with me.  I was student teaching in Providence, RI.  My cooperating teacher was wonderful: passionate, effective, supportive, and willing to let me fall flat on face...repeatedly.  One particular student seemed unreachable.  This young man, let's call him Diego, was an exceptional writer.  His prose was magical: detailed, flowing, expressive, meaningful, full of unique insight, plot twists, vivid settings, well-developed characters.  In my wildest dreams, I could never write as well as Diego.

But...and there always is a but isn't there...Diego was a terrible student.  He rarely completed in class assignments and he NEVER did homework.  His biggest issue; however, was his attendance.  On a good week, he made it to school for part of three days. On a bad week, he showed up once.

After a few weeks, I finally got a story out of Diego; that was when I discovered how incredibly gifted he was.  I was so frustrated with his attendance and his apathy and its contrast with his skill.  He presented an enigma that I had no idea how to approach.  I did some sleuthing and discovered that Diego was obsessed with cars.  So obsessed, in fact, that his attendance issues stemmed from the full time job he had obtained in his cousin's auto body shop.  He came to school when he could get the day off.

It didn't make sense: why come to school at all?  Diego was 17--he could have simply dropped out.  As an aside, let me state for the record that I am a high school drop-out.  That is a story for another time, but suffice it say, I support alternative paths and abhor the mantra that every student should graduate or die trying to have any hope of success in life.  So Diego's insistence on coming to school once in a while made me crazy!

I dug deeper.  It turned out, Diego had a serious girlfriend who was a Junior in our high school.  Never mind that at 17 Diego was still a freshman.  Never mind that he was building a successful career doing something he loved.  She insisted he graduate.  Worse, his parents backed her up.  They were immigrants from Ecuador and felt strongly that graduation was an essential component of the American dream.  They weren't wrong in general, just wrong for their child.  They had bought the misguided societal belief that there is only one road to success.  Diego was told in no uncertain terms that living at home was contingent on attending, and eventually graduating, high school.

Diego wasn't a thug.  He wasn't involved in gangs, he didn't steal, he wasn't doing or selling drugs.  He had avoided every stereotypical pitfall thrown his way.  Yet, here he was, trapped in an untenable position between successfully pursuing his passion and meeting the expectations of the people he loved.

Finally, I confronted Diego.  It had been a few weeks since I began student teaching and I had decided to have individual grade and writing conferences with each student.  I don't recall much about those conferences, though I am sure most students enjoyed the day off as I sat and spoke to students individually.  I do remember my conversation with Diego.

I sat there with his story and stared at him.  I took a deep breath and said "Diego, you are an exceptional writer.  But, we have a problem: you don't care enough."  I said "You have to make a choice: either commit to your future as a mechanic and go for it, or commit to graduating from high school.  But choose.  Stop wasting your time and stop wasting mine.  Your talent and your life deserve better."

Diego didn't say anything I can remember.  He didn't resist or become resentful.  His reaction was unremarkable.  Yet he came to school every single day for the rest of my tenure as a student teacher.  He showed up and he worked.

I didn't know our conversation would have such an immediate impact on him, and I was unbelievably proud of him, and of myself, to be honest.  It was a profound lesson for me: a strong relationship and brutal honesty, delivered with compelling empathy and unwavering faith, can help a child, a teenager, make a real choice.

I want to be able to say that Diego went on to graduate.  He didn't, at least as far as I know.  The last day of my student teaching was the last day Diego attended school for almost two weeks.  About a year later, I ran into Diego at the local mall.  He told me he was still in school, still working for his cousin, and still no where near graduating.  It was like a punch to the gut.  As much as I had an impact on him, he couldn't sustain momentum without me in his life.

The revelation that we, as teachers, have so much influence, is incredibly powerful.  The next time you think you don't matter, think about this: the day you leave either physically or emotionally,  the day you give up, is the day your Diego stops coming to school every day and goes back to wasting his time and yours...

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