I’ve always told my students I’m not their friend or buddy, so do not confuse me with someone they can pal around with. And I’m not interested in their social lives or weekend plans or who’s dating whom so long as it doesn’t affect their academic lives or physical/mental health. That’s the stuff of high school gossip some educators definitely whisper about – those people need to get a life.
Anyway, there is a line that exists between teachers and students for a reason, a distinction that further separates child from adult. However, kids eventually grow up. Then, what do you do?
They move on, you continue to do your job with a new set of kids and a new one after them and so on. And as a teacher you hope they make the right decisions and see future success; that’s it, right? Well, yes and no. In my position as the middle [and sometimes high] school English teacher at Thornton-Donovan School in New Rochelle, I occasionally have the unique opportunity to watch a child progress from 6th grade all the way through 12th grade. That tidbit provides some context for the work I did with a young man originally from the Bronx whom I started working with when he was in eighth grade. He became the first member of his family to graduate from high school last June (see “The Make Good Son” for more on him).
In short, I became this boy’s mentor and executive function coach (see “A Mentor or Just a Nightmare” for my reservations about that role) and I always told him that my happiest day as an educator would be when he fired me. If he no longer needed my services, then my work was done. And while that didn’t necessarily happen, his graduating and consequent attending of college was enough for him to make good on the promise I knew he had all along.
So, I saw him this past weekend on my way back from Boston. Now a freshman for American International College in Springfield, MA, where he plays rugby on scholarship, he appears to get it (or at least what he says leads me to believe this). He’s going to class and getting his work done; he’s even seeing teachers on office hours as I always implored him to do. Even more surprising is that he hasn’t gotten consumed in some of the allures (or pitfalls, depending on your perspective) of college – the parties, the late nights, maybe even the drugs. Let’s be honest, in his time as my student/protege, he did not always make the right decisions and he learned some hard and valuable lessons because of them.
I’ve come to realize over the years that every kid learns at his/her own pace. Unfortunately, there is not a set number of screw-ups that guarantees learning. Kids also screw up at their own pace. I certainly know this from my tumultuous teenage years – just get a look at my license picture to figure that out. Now, I can look back and think, How many times can one get caught underage and blasted before he either figures out how to spend the night at someone’s house or change his ways?
Anyway, those missteps prepared me not to repeat them in college when so many kids were expressing their newfound freedom by cracking their teeth on toilet bowls, blowing off classes and assignments due to mystery stomach ailments and migraines, or waking up in a hospital bed with a catheter and and a whole lot of regret. Does that mean my former student is a saint? No, definitely not, but that’s the point. Perfect is Utopian and naive and ultimately unattainable. Perfect doesn’t progress or grow. I’m not interested in perfect. I’m interested in maturation.
What this all boils down to is a quote I’m working on with my sixth graders from RJ Palachio’s Wonder: “Your deeds are your monuments,” which apparently is an inscription on an Egyptian tomb.
You can screw up in the pursuit of learning, but eventually you and everyone else has to realize that actions matter, for they reflect on your character.
It’s a lesson I’ve been trying to teach my protege for a number of years, one he fought me on for as long as I can remember, one he’s finally starting to understand.
I really, really want to believe that.