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]“A teacher affects eternity,” Henry Adams wrote, words so self-evident they are cliché, words so true they have become part of our folk wisdom. When that happens, nobody hears them anymore, nobody much believes in them anymore.
During my years in the teaching trenches, I admit I sometimes had trouble staying focused on how I might be influencing eternity. I could have played the starring role in “Up the Down Staircase,” that old funny movie about a hapless young teacher. Overworked and underpaid, my idealism was battered by flying spitballs and 15-year-olds who couldn’t tell a verb from a noun much less (“you’re kidding” they cried) conjugate one.
Still, I persisted in spoon-feeding literature to them, convinced that the emotionally charged stories of our people, the wisdom and joy of a civilization, would, oh, I don’t know, maybe help them better man the gas pumps of America or – yes, I admit I was earnest – help them hold life close and dear. Too many of them had a careless disregard for their future that pierced my heart.
Were they not real people who walked through my life, I’d think they were stock characters from a B movie. Rodney, always laughing Rodney, drove way too fast despite all our warnings, and one night, after a fight with his girlfriend, he wrapped his car around a tree. He’s been in a wheelchair for over 40 years. Steve, who was so bright and creative, surrendered his ambition in the 12th grade to marijuana and perhaps to other drugs I was too naïve to suspect. He’s been dead for a long time now. Brenda, pregnant, poor and unmarried, dropped out of the 10th grade despite all my pep talks. I never heard of her again. Matt, perhaps the most gifted student I ever taught, was flirting with alcohol even as I was encouraging him toward the stars. Alcohol would stalk the next four decades of his life and rob him of the achievements that he could have rightly claimed.
And so when my friend told me this story about her grandson, I didn’t want to believe it at first. A teacher can’t save every student no matter how hard she tries, I thought, and most of us, like doctors, at least try to do no harm. Surely, I insisted, the boy misunderstood what the teacher said.
But in this era when rising test scores can make a teacher’s career, when declining numbers can even lead to unemployment or an undesirable transfer, my instinct told me this story was probably more true than not. And maybe, too, this teacher was worn out with trying. Maybe this teacher’s heart and idealism had been stepped on once too often.
You see, my friend’s grandson had an awful ninth-grade year in high school. Hanging with the wrong crowd, often truant, he failed every class. The boy’s parents have been apart most of his life and there are other layered problems in his nuclear family that have probably contributed to his difficulties. My friend, a single mother herself, understands and accepts the family’s culpability.
But his family also has been a positive force in his life. They have a strong work ethic. His grandfather has spent a lifetime in law enforcement. They value education. Before serious illness struck, the boy’s mother was herself a teacher as several others in the family have been. Collectively, the family had convinced the boy to make a fresh start with the new school year. Yes, he would have to repeat the ninth grade, but he could do it and should do it. More mature after a summer of hard labor in construction work with his father, the boy promised his family he was ready to turn over a new leaf.
And so, two weeks shy of his 16th birthday and full of optimism, the boy went to the high school with his father to register for classes for the new school year. What the boy heard the school say was that he shouldn’t bother them.
“Haven’t you caused us all enough trouble?” the counselor-teacher reportedly said. “You’ll be 16 in a few weeks. Why don’t you study for a GED instead of enrolling in classes here?”
The boy’s newfound confidence was shattered. The family cannot persuade him to return to the school and attempt to enroll again, and there is no money for a private school or out of district tuition.
The boy’s grandmother has lived long enough to know that a high school education does not guarantee a successful life. She’s also known many people who have lived happy, productive lives – some even became wealthy – without a high school diploma. But it takes a unique drive to succeed without an education, and she is unsure how her grandson will fare – especially in the evermore complex economy and culture of the 21st century.
Even if he succeeds in obtaining his GED, she mourns for the high school memories he will never have. The prom. Friday night football games.
“He was such a sweet little boy,” his grandmother tells me in a quiet voice.
But this old English teacher finds herself screaming – and in the present tense. I want to take my friend by the hand and run to the silly counselor’s office because we should be talking about this child in the future tense, this child who cannot yet even drive a car. Surely successful test score percentiles and school district bonuses don’t rest on discarding our children – and if they do, God help us all, because as Pogo said, we have met the enemy and it is us.
I want to look the counselor in the eye and teach her the past tense conjugation of the verb “to be” – about Rodney and Steve, Brenda and Matt. I want her to understand that “was” is the saddest word in the English language.