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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 His clothing indicated his gang affiliation; he was disengaged and withdrawn in classes.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.

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