“From Sixth Grade to Cornell” is dedicated to the student who believed in me before I even believed in myself as a sixth grade English teacher. They simply don’t make kids like that anymore.
As I mentioned in the July 6, 2017, “Throwback Thursday: The Speech I Actually Gave,” writing letters to particular graduates has become a tradition over the years – dating back to when I got married and missed the 2015 Thornton-Donovan School commencement.
In July 10th’s “The Make Good Son,” I wrote that “this student…supersedes most of – if not all – my success stories.” His adoptive brother on his way to Cornell University in the fall and the focus of this particular piece is the exception.
These two students supersede ALL of my other success stories:
Hey, comma, dude, so what am I going to do without you? Starting a composition with a question is so childish, a transgression for which I probably chided some of your sixth grade – now graduated senior – peers all those years ago, but I have not been able to dispel the question from my head.
Over the past six years, you have been someone who has made my day better when I’m feeling more G-Man than Bubesi. From your eternal smile to your quirky sense of humor, you have an unparalleled passion for living and exploring and learning – none of which you must ever lose.
As a teacher I pride myself on being the enabler of dreams, the one who empowers kids to discover their passion and to pursue it vigorously. Yet, every once in a while, there is a student who affects his teacher in such a profound way that he allows him to dream. That, obviously, is you.
I never anticipated being a middle school English teacher, certainly not a sixth grade English teacher. And, frankly, teaching grammar in a zesty way scared me, especially since any teacher I had ever had made it as bland as boiled cabbage.
However, for whatever reason, you believed in me, probably more than I believed in myself at the time. Even when you were screwing around or not getting the top grades in the class, I recognized in you a drive that far exceeded the pursuit of a number. You pursued knowledge because you actually were interested, not because you wanted to butter my roll or pad your GPA. And that has always impressed me about you.
What’s more is that you, even as a sixth grader, comported yourself as an adult would. My interactions with you at that age were more mature than some of my interactions with my colleagues. And in your questions about subject matter I didn’t know as well as I do now; about cross-curricular connections to history, current events, and politics; and about mechanics and engineering (which I still have no idea about), you inspired me to push the boundaries and demand that each one of you realize your potential. In a way, you enabled me to be the enabler of dreams (there’s an Inception allusion to be made somewhere in there).
Finally, I never would have become the teacher I did without your class – really, without you in particular. Those first couple years at T-D reinforced what I’ve always believed about kids – that they just want someone who cares about their success and is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure it. I started to realize then that kids have insight beyond their years that is as important as anything the teacher himself will impart on them. You’ve taught me how to interact, how to engage, how to understand, how to motivate, and I thank you for that.
It’s been an honor serving you as your captain of the dictator ship, GMC. I would be remiss if I said I wasn’t going to miss you. They simply do not make kids like you and your graduated peers anymore. However, I take solace knowing that you are continuing your pursuit of lifelong learning, and I anxiously await the next iteration of Greg as an adult just as eagerly as I awaited your ascent from middle to high school, from child to adult, from apprentice to master. Never stop creating civil unrest, never stop questioning, never stop demanding the best for yourself. And stay away from the Bensons, man.
I leave you with a brief excerpt from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” that serves as a testament to your tireless determination:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
With great pride and a heavy heart, yours truly,