April 2018

Sunday, December 19, 2010

P. S. 23 Extra Ordinary

One great gift of teaching high school for so many years is that I have gotten to know some extraordinary young people and have watched some  take on stunning challenges with elegance and grace. These students inspire me. I'm going to briefly share their stories here so that you can be inspired, too, but I'm going to make up names for  them so that I don't accidentally reveal something that might make trouble for them.

Delphia came to my ninth grade English class intermittently. When she was there, she was polite and seemed engaged, and she was clearly smart. Because she missed school so often, however, I worried about whether she was in fact engaged in the class and about what might be keeping her from class.

I called Delpia's mom, who came immediately to the school. Delphia's mom speaks no English and my Spanish isn't so good, but we muddlied through the conversation. At some point, Delphia came into the office where her mom and I were talking and was clearly angry that I had called her mom. I blanked on the word "worried" and asked Delphia how to say it. "I don't speak Spanish," she told me.

As the year continued, Dellphia began to see education as a way to have a different life than her mother had, and I got to know her better. I learned about her previous schooling. Delpia had received good grades but had sporadic attendance in middle school, and while in middle school she got involved in drugs and gangs. Sometimes in high school when she came to school quite late in the day, a cute boy in a green Chevrolet four-door dropped her off.

Delphia's mom, who was clearly quite smart and driven to care for her children, had a second grade education in Mexico and worked menial jobs in the United States. Depending on men to support her, she had been married three times and had been abused but had felt trapped in those relationships.

Delphia met a mentor, a student who had been much like her and was now starting college. Delphia's grades slowly rose from Fs and Ds to As and Bs. During high school, she became politically active in Latina education at the state level and in leadership, especially for Latino students and their families, at the school. Delphia began to see her own future as a college graduate, a lawyer working on behalf of immigrants. She received a full undergraduate scholarship to the University, where she is now.

Another student, Herman, attended a suburban high school of generally economically priviledged students. In my sophomore English class, Herman was more cynical than any sophomore I had previously met. (That's saying a lot.) He never engaged in his education that year or saw any reason for hope. At home, his stepfather had kicked him out of the house, and Herman lived in a trailer in the yard. I don't think he had heat. He often came to school wrinkled and weary. I sought help from counselors  and social workers for him, but nothing really helped. He dropped out, and I lost touch with him.

Years later, walking down a Seattle sidewalk, I saw Herman begging for money to get some drugs to celebrate his twenty-first birthday. I tried not to catch his eye--I told myself that I didn't want to embarrass him. In another few years I saw him on that street again, this time already high. Eyes bloodshot and hyper, he seemed delighted when he saw me, exclaiming, "I know you! I never forget a face!"

Fastforward another few years to the last two times I saw him on that same sidewalk. These times, however, he was clean and walked with purpose. He slowed to tell me his story. He had gotten clearn and sober and was now in college getting As and Bs.

Though I had been unable to serve this student, he had survived a tough life, and it seemed was on a much better path now. It seems he found his way. I have again lost touch with him. He seems to no longer frequent that sidewalk.

Ann's student Michael attended high school in that same suburb. One of the "lost boys" of the Sudan, he had walked across the Sudan twice, seeking refuge from the violence of the civil war and the wild animals and brutal landscape that killed his family and many of his friends. Adopted by a middle-class family in this mostly white suburb, Michael took on a new journey, learning English and learning how to do school and finding through his charm and kindness the resources he needed to succeed, in the end attending college as well.

Ann's current student, Agituu, a high school junior from Oroma in Southern Ethopia came to the United States when she was in sixth grade. She spoke no English and had never been to school, though a family friend and taught her to read and write in Oromo. A volunteer at her public middle school noticed her drive and her brilliance  and helped her apply for a scholarship to a private school where she could get the support she needed to fulfill a dream of college success. She's learned to speak English fluently and along with her classmates reads and writes about classic texts like The Odyssey.  Through her determination, she seeks out teachers who will support her learning. She is going to graduate from this challenging school and head on to college with the skills and determination to be successful in her dream of helping other children who are like she was: perhaps being a doctor who returns to her childhood home in Southern Ethiopia to serve children who are as in need as she was or educating "one thousand children."

The final student I'll tell you about, Hermione, grew up in an upper middle-class home in that same suburb. When I taught her as a junior, her writing was not as strong as she wanted it to be. For months after her Scarlet Letter essay had been returned with its grade, she revised the essay not for a grade but so that she would learn to write as well as she wished. She was (and is) beautiful, socially graceful, musically and academically talented.

In college, Hermione first wanted to major in social work. Her father disapproved:. something more financially rewarding was more what he had in mind. She graduated from college a decade ago with an education degree and has been working in a charter school for students who struggle, most of whom are poor and African-American. Next year, she's hoping to go to graduate school to learn more about literacy.

Hermione wants to help students who struggle learn the key skill of reading. In her, I see much of my younger self, someone who grew up in privilege and uses that privilege to work for those without such advantages. She is joyful and committed and is making, I feel sure, a real difference in the lives of students who need someone like her to believe that they are important.

I have a whole list of students in my mind. I could tell you inspiring stories all day. The great gift of teaching such students is the gift of being a witness to such determination, spirit, and hope.

In these budget crisis days, I hope that we won't cut off this important source of our hope. These students need us, and we need them. Mary

1 comment:

  1. Mary, thank you very much for those inspiring stories about your students.



Please comment: I'd love to hear your thoughts!