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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Manuel -- a former student -- called me a few nights ago. For two years, I'd been trying to find out what had happened to him; I'd heard only rumors. He left a message, but I didn't recognize his deep man's voice.

I called back and blubbered, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for calling me. You don't understand what you mean to me."

It's hard to explain, readers, but maybe there's a Manuel in your life. Manuel was one of my babies, one of the students in the group of 50 I taught at the ASCEND School, in Oakland, California, for three years. (Read this Edutopia.org article about ASCEND, and watch this Edutopia video about the school.) I met him when he entered the sixth grade, a chubby-cheeked, short, squirmy 11-year-old.

Unlike so many of his peers in my class, he was solidly on grade level in language arts. He enjoyed reading, and did so for pleasure. He had a sharp, analytical mind and thrived in my class. One spring break, he won a contest for reading the most books during the vacation. He was skilled in all academic areas and was a talented artist.

When Reality Steps In

As he finished eighth grade, Manuel begged me to fail him, to retain him in middle school. He was terrified of leaving the safe, respectful bubble we had at ASCEND. "I'm so afraid of what will happen to me in high school," he said in an interview just before graduating. "I'm afraid I'll drop out or just stop reading."

Manuel went to a troubled high school where he became affected by what he called the "real world." I saw him a few times in his first two years of high school. His clothing indicated his gang affiliation; he was disengaged and withdrawn in classes.

One afternoon, I got a message from Manuel: "My mom is making me move to Stockton. Please talk to her. I can't go out there; I'll have trouble there. I can't tell you what it is, but please talk to her." I'd never heard him so frantic.

When I called back, his phone had been disconnected. That was the last time I heard from him.

Rumors circulated among his former classmates that he was a gangbanger, that he had been in "juvie," and that he was under house arrest. I knew where almost all of my other former students were, so I tried all the networks I could think of to get in touch with him, but I couldn't find him. Not knowing where or how he was haunted me.

I tried to explain this to him when he and I talked a few nights ago. "You were my student before I even had a kid, so you were like a son to me," I told him. "You might have been involved with some stuff that wasn't so good, but the person I know is that little boy, that sweet and thoughtful little boy who loved to read and who was terrified to leave our school. I know that little boy is a part of you, and I'll always love him."

His response came from the child inside of him. "Do you remember that certificate you gave me in sixth grade?" he asked. "I have it on my wall. I also have that essay I wrote about my baby brother. Do you remember that?" Of course I remembered it.

Many years before, his baby brother had been born prematurely because of his father's violence. The baby died. In our seventh-grade class, we made an altar for the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Manuel brought a photo of the baby in a casket. He wrote a moving essay about his anger and sadness, which he shared with our class. We sat as a community, our room lit up by candles, flowers, and papel picado, under the gaze of dozens of family members who had passed away. As Manuel wept, his peers comforted him.

He explained to me that he had another certificate and a sixth-grade report card also hanging on his bedroom wall. I tried to imagine this 18-year-old's walls adorned with these relics from middle school.

He had been in juvenile hall and under house arrest. He'd been gangbanging and dealing drugs. He had dropped out and then enrolled in adult school and received his diploma. But he hadn't read a book in years.

A Long-Awaited Reunion

Manuel came to see me. In spite of his big man body and his self-consciousness, he crumpled down and let me hug him. "I can't help it," I told him. "I'm so happy to see you."

He picked up books in my office that he remembered seeing in my class in middle school. He told me he is trying to stay out of trouble: "I just hang with the family," he said. We talked about what had happened to his peers from ASCEND. "None of us died?" he asked. "That's pretty good." He's lost many of his friends to violence and to prisons.

"Could there have been another outcome for you?" I asked. "What could we have done to keep you away from gangs and all that stuff?" He shook his head and said, "For Latino males, this is how it is. You gotta choose a side."

I mentioned Javier and Saul, who had successfully avoided gangs. I've heard the gotta-choose-a-side argument, but I'm not convinced that there aren't other options. He tried to explain all the factors that led some into gangs. Of all the students I taught in his cohort, the Latino males struggled the most to negotiate the streets.

Manuel was really clear on one belief: His fate would have been different if, after eighth grade, he not had to leave ASCEND -- the one place where he felt safe and cared for and where he thrived academically. "We should have stayed at ASCEND for high school," he explained.

The Job Unfinished

Manuel really wants to go to college. He's been working in construction and hates it. "But I'm afraid," he told me. "I don't even remember how to write an essay."

I offered to take him to a community college to see a counselor. I don't know if he'll go. I don't know if he'll get into trouble again. I do know that I love him and so many of the other students I've had the way I love my own child -- unconditionally. I wish there were more words to describe these feelings that teachers have for their students.

Through Manuel's eyes, I see that I hold a place for him; I am a reminder of who he was in middle school. Yes, he was silly and immature and growing up, but for the most part, he was innocent and academically successful. He knows -- I am pretty sure -- that he can always return to me and be that boy. His phone call, his visit, his expression are what make this job, and my role as a placeholder, absolutely worth it.

I guess I keep returning to the topic of the first entry I wrote, which asks why we teach. I need to return here -- day after day -- to keep me going.

What's keeping you going these days? Which reasons keep you in this profession? Which students have touched your heart?

Read the second part of this entry, where, inspired by readers' responses to these questions, Elena writes more on this subject.

Comments (57)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your comments. I'm amazed at how many of my former students I've found on Facebook. It always feels a little strange having that kind of a line of communication with them, but then again, I love knowing what they're up to and most of them are mindful about keeping it clean. And yes, keep getting involved with students and their families--there's nothing else that's as rewarding and wonderful as those connections.

Amy Jean Marzka-Ward's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Lamont is my Manuel. I only spent one year with him, my first year teaching, but I won't ever forget his face when I came back to visit. I had a good relationship with Lamont, most of the other teachers didn't care for him much. Neither did his adoptive mother. I remember her telling me, "Adopting him was a big mistake." My first reaction was that there was no way this woman was keeping those feelings to herself; my heart sank at the thought of what life was like at home for Lamont. He was 13 years old and already too street-wise. His friends were 18 years and older. His academic skills were far below grade level, he could be difficult and disruptive in class. Despite this, when I looked at him all I saw was a boy who wanted to be cared about. I couldn't fix much in his life but I could care about him, so I did. I'll never know for certain what real impact I had in Lamont's life, but when I saw him last he came running towards me with the biggest ear-to-ear smile that I will NEVER forget. He leapt towards me almost knocking me over, then regained his composure and let me know he was mad that I left.
I didn't really make a decision to care for Lamont, it just happened. But this is indicative of how our job is not just a job but a calling. Without planning, profound moments are part of our daily experiences, often we don't realize them at the time. When Lamont came running over to me, that was when I realized that my caring about him was important. Maybe there is no happy ending with Lamont in college or staying off the streets and out of trouble. But I have to believe it meant something.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It was refreshing to read your story. I have had many students that move that I can't stop thinking about. I am glad to read that it is normal. The best feeling in the world is making that bond with a student, and I have spent many nights crying when they leave. Thanks for sharing your story.

Judy Durham's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really wish I had a teacher like you when I was in school.

Hollie Hall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely again with you when you say it only takes one person to believe in you. I find that most of the relationships you form with students stay with them for a lifetime, without the teacher even realizes it. Communicating with your students and forming relationships with them during and after class can make each student's life change in a positive way. I feel that it is very important to help the students in need but also reach out to the students that don't seem visually in need. It is usually the students that need the most help that are not reaching out for help.

Hollie Hall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find it so interesting that Manuel did not show the need for a teacher to student relationship at first. Once the relationship was established the teacher then realized the need for this bond between the two of them. I find as a teacher it is usually the students that do not visually display that he or she is in dire need of help or a healthy adult relationship. Once the relationship is established, the student will then begin to open up with any problems that he or she is having with their life. I wish as a teacher we could establish a healthy relationship with all of our students to give them a trustworthy resource. But, as a teacher of 150 students each year that is impossible for me. I find it very sad that I cannot help everyone, but then I got back to the understanding that helping one is always better than helping none.

Kaywana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a beautiful story that demonstrates how the human dimension of teaching is so important in this profession. I am very impressed with the fact that you have been able to stay in touch with all your students.

I guess what keeps teachers going is the fact that they can have such a great impact on the lives of their students. You may just reach one student and you feel as if you have changed the world.

Megan Slocum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for this story Elena! I have only been teaching for 2 years and I have established many close relationships with some of my students who do not have the support they need at home in order to succeed in school and in the community. Many of my fellow teacher have warned me not to get too close and to just focus on the teaching aspect of this profession. Deep down, I knew that pushing these students away who needed me was not the answer. I will continue to be a caring, loving role model for these students because they need to know someone cares and believes in them. Your story has made me realize that I teach not only just to help others but to also help myself. I have learned to establish relationships which make me a better person and give me faith and the determination I need to keep going no mater how challenging this profession can be sometimes.

M. Salvador's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Throughout my pre-service teaching experiences, and even in my classroom interactions, many have stressed the importance of showing genuine care for students. Not just a pat on the back or a quick smile, but to genuinely care for students where they are at. This means believing in their ability to learn and grow. Students respond to teachers that show them that they truly do care for them. This response may not be as we imagine and is often not seen clearly until looked at from a distance. Reading this story helped me to remember that students need to feel they have a safe place where someone wants the best for them and believes the best of them. I hope that my students will always know that I care for them, no matter how long it has been since they completed the first grade. Thank you, Elena, for sharing this story and helping me to prepare for another year of teaching.

LaKisha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This story is so moving. All the Manuels in my classroom keep me going. It is so easy to get bogged down with all of the negative energy that you have to face from day to day. It's so easy to loose sight of why you chose this profession in the first place. There are so many factors that could easily take your focus off of the students in your classroom. But when you stop and think about the lives you touch each day, you can't help but love what you do. I have a few Manuels in my classroom. They motivate me to come to work everyday and brush off the negative vibes I encounter. This is why I love teaching. I may not reach everyone but I will reach someone! Thanks Elena for sharing this story.

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