(Rockwall) June 23, 2013 – My students clamored for summer break, having whined and begged for free days once Christmas ended (an exercise in futility… I give no free days, ever).
After a year of higher standards, grueling tests and lackluster results, this class cleaned out their locker, turned in lingering assignments, and became freshman—another class gone and in a few months another one through. It is the cycle we teachers experience, just like the seasons and sports: fall and football, gym echoes in winter, spring winds on the track, and “pastime” summers.
Experts say that a human can recall about 200 names of people at a time, and between the kids I teach and those I coach, that’s about right. So this class moves on and sadly, I’ll stammer when I see them in public, but some will overcome my frailties, etched forever in my mind.
Nancy* was one of those. When she entered my AVID** class, she’d barely talk, but she smiled real big and for some odd reason, I can’t explain, something stood out. Maybe it was a teacher “sixth sense of potential” or maybe it was the good Lord alerting me to someone special. I asked around to see if anybody knew her elementary background, and most responded that they thought she had moved around a bunch. I met her aunt, her acting guardian, and I knew there was a story there, but Nancy wasn’t the typical middle schooler who blabs family secrets; in fact, she never revealed a thing, “mum” was her word. She joined the school band as well as other activities and grew to be everybody’s friend. As the weeks passed, her grades were solid B’s sprinkled with A’s, but she wasn’t satisfied, she wanted the best.
Eventually, I gave the timeline assignment. The kids were to map out their life, isolating the most significant events. They were to choose the one most influential moment and give a three-minute speech in front of the class. Nancy’s face became ashen; I thought she’d be sick. She had already stood before the class and spoken numerous times (and actually did a good job) so I couldn’t understand her sudden “stage fright.” Nevertheless, she went to work, diligent as always. Then, later, approached my desk.
“I can’t do this.”
Words she said that before, said them when she needed a few more points for straight A’s, and she did it. She had even said that before a recital, scared she’d hit the wrong note, but she played beautifully. So, I encouraged her, reminded her of the great job she’d done, but this time she stood her ground and handed me her paper.
My heart broke at what I read.
Nancy was a third grader when her home life soured. Her parents fought; explosive yelling then pockets of whispers behind closed doors that ended with Nancy sitting in a courtroom and her parents deciding to no longer be. The court wasn’t taking Nancy, her parents were giving her up. It seems that their addictions won the first place and as mom and dad immersed themselves in analgesics, Nancy moved in with an aunt she’d never met. Afterwards, she bounced around from school to school, a new one every year it seemed, until she came to Rockwall.
I looked up from her paper as tears poured down her face. I’ve worked with kids for nearly 20 years, and an event like that usually spells disaster. Rebellion is certain, depression inevitable, and a delving into the same sins of their lineage is the ironic end. The vicious cycle spins and most don’t jump off the “merry-go-round” until they’re 40.
But Nancy is unusual.
She had determined somewhere to push through her past and never look back, never use it as an excuse for failure, and she soared, in everything from popularity to academics, and she decided that she’d give the speech, regardless that I gave her an out. She was determined, and she stood and shared her dark past, being one of the bravest acts I’ve witnessed.
Teaching middle schoolers can be a circus of insanity. They’re moody, awkward, and care little, if at all, for the knowledge you present. Toss high stakes testing standards, disgruntled parents, and a myriad of regulations and procedures and no wonder some teachers almost beat the kids to the door on the final day. Yet a kid like Nancy keeps me coming back for more, reminding me of the reason I teach. As the names fade, hers will not, because who can forget that kind of greatness?
* Names and background information have been changed to protect privacy.
** AVID is a college readiness class where students are taught the strategies that will make them successful in high school and college.
By Blue Ribbon News special contributor Scott Gill of Rockwall. He’s a teacher, coach and author of the young adult adventure novel, Goliath Catfish. His writings have appeared in Dallas Child, Teachers of Vision and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Follow his blog at scotttgill.com.