A Thursday in December in 2012…
7:48- I stand at my classroom door, coffee cup in hand, greeting students with high fives, warm welcomes, and scanning the hallway to see what was going on. Eighth graders are shuffling past and even at 7:49 now on a Thursday morning, they are energetic and getting to work as they enter my classroom. We’re on the second week of the debate unit and I can feel it’s going to be an awesome day.
Then a shoving match erupts by the drinking fountain across the hall from my door. Swearing. Fists. Other kids getting caught off guard and shoved in to lockers. I run to break it up along with the science teacher two doors down and the B.D. teacher from around the corner. In 15 seconds the kids are separated and the announcements begin over the intercom. The cause of this fight? K bumped in to H. Both boys are escorted to the office. I start teaching after the Pledge of Allegiance.
8:26- I remind M for probably the third time to work with his partner on filling out the debate planning Google Doc. “Debates start next week and I don’t see any of your sources listed for your research.” In usual M fashion, he tells me where I can go and how to get there. I know M. I know what he’s dealing with living in temporary housing while mom gets treatment for drug addiction. I know he probably didn’t have breakfast. I know he probably got told to pull his pants up at least three times by three different adults since he entered the school. I also know he’s smart and getting an education is his only shot. I quietly remind him of our classroom code taped to each desk. “You’ve got eight minutes to get something done.” He gets to work for the last eight minutes of class.
8:37- Passing time. K enters my classroom for second period. “Everything settled?” I inquire. “Yeah.” Seconds later, H passes and enters a room next door. Forty minutes ago, these kids were punching each other, how are they back in class?! Time to start teaching. Move on.
11:24- Fifth period begins. This is my directed study class. Essentially a fancy study hall for kids who aren’t in band or choir. As I scan my room to enter attendance, I notice that M is gone. “No M?” I ask. Another student chimes in, “He threw away his worksheet and he called Ms. J. a -” “Ok, you don’t need to repeat it. Thank you.” I begin teaching.
I can’t help but keep circling back to M in my mind. Why did M get suspended while the other two got back to class? Does an adult feeling disrespected matter more than fighting?
Five years later and I am sitting here thinking about this random day in 2012 and I can’t help but wonder what ever happened to M, H, and K. I can’t help but think that if we know our kids well enough we set them up to succeed only through relationships. I wonder if I should have done something different. Did I have the impact I hoped to have? I can’t remember K or H’s last name but I remember M. A quick Iowa Courts Online search uncovers what I had hoped wouldn’t be true. I enter his name in to Google and story from a local news station comes up. I see in the face of the mugshot the 13 year old kid I tried to reach. The kid I got frustrated with almost daily, sometimes twice daily. The kid I wanted to warn about his future. He struggled to read. He struggled to perform academically. By 8th grade, how large was the gap that existed for him? What if we would have intervened earlier? Would his academic success from early intervention have mattered enough to change the course of his life?
M was arrested last December in a nearby city at age 17 for firing a gun at a car of people he was trying to buy prescription drugs from. He got charged with 1st Degree Robbery, Assault, Intimidation with a Dangerous Weapon, and Violation of a No Contact Order. He was sentenced last February to a little over 5 years in prison.
For all of the things I couldn’t influence in M’s life, I could influence how I made him feel while he was in my classroom. I could influence his academic development through my expectations for him. I could influence the support and assistance he got from me as his teacher as we sat and worked on crafting his writing, his reading, and his creativity. I could celebrate with him when he turned in an assignment that was original and done to his best. Did he exhibit some less than desirable traits in my classroom? Yes. But he was my student just as your students are your students. When we label kids as “that kid” we get “that kid” behaviors from them. We have the power as adults to decide how we’re going to interact with our kids. Did I make a difference in the journey of his life? Maybe not at 17 as he held a gun and fired. My hope is that even if he has long forgotten my name, my face, or my class that deep down, that funny, quick minded 13 year old is still there and he still has a shot at turning his life around.
What I am sure of is this…M being suspended for a day and a half for disrespect when he was 13 didn’t really get the respect message through, did it? Somehow taking a kid who is already academically at risk and denying him instruction didn’t close the gap. Maybe a worksheet wasn’t what M needed.
Now as a building principal, I am work so hard to be mindful of what our kids need. How can we as adults ensure that our students are set up for success? We can’t control their journey, but we can light their path, ignite their passion, and give them a sense of possibility while they’re with us. While this was not the happiest of stories, I opened up Twitter as I finished writing this, to see Jimmy Casas author of “Culturize” (our staff book study after break) tweeted this morning, “Behind every student success story, is a staff member who championed for that student. Will you be that one? #Culturize”
I choose to remain joyful and hopeful for every kid.