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 His clothing indicated his gang affiliation; he was disengaged and withdrawn in classes.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

Clare's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elena,
I was just about to give up on my blog search when I came across your post. Participating in a blog is something forgein to me and I was feeling lost and unconnected to many "stories"- until I read this one. I work in an inner city school and have found myself in a similar situation. While I can talk to my fellow teachers about my feelings, I did not know how to relate to other teachers in other schools. There are no schools like ours in the area. We are riddled with gangs and violence and are very sheltered in our city. Just today we had students come to school with knives and medical needles, plottting to kill eachother. We have very little security and my heart often goes out to my students because I feel their dangerous situation is preventable. For students like your Manuel and my Larrys and Joshuas and Raiquans, life is surreal and dreams seem unatainable. I feel a great weight on my shoulders daily to help these students succeed where it seems impossible. Thank you for sharing your story and helping me connect.
Clare
Orange County, NY

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with students in and out of the classroom. Even though students are easier to relate to once they are in high school, even at the elementary level, I have had the opportunity to see the immediate impact I can make on students' lives. There is a boy in my second grade class whose family is from El Salvador. English is a second language for him and the only language for the rest of his family. He was chosen to have a leading role in our school christmas play because he didn't have a ride home. I volunteered to drive him home each week after practice and began developing a relationship with his grandmother, who only spoke Spanish. My three semesters of Spanish in college helped me get through basic conversations with her, and her grandson translated the rest.

After our relationship developed, his grandmother invited me to lunch. After spending the day with she, her friends, and her grandson, I have an even deeper appreciation for how greatly I can impact students' lives.

Danielle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elena, I loved reading your story. It reminds me of why I got into the profession of teaching. Thank you so much for sharing. I would like to think that I have made a difference in the lives of some of my students, but I have never had an experience like yours. We need more teachers like you, because every student needs to know that someone cares for him/her. Thank you for the inspiring story!

LaToya 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for sharing! This was very moving. I am only a second year teacher, but I had one student to touch my heart in the same manner this year. My student came in very disrepectful. I had to earn her trust. As a new teacher, I felt like I was running out of ideas on how to reach this student. Finally, in December, the last day before winter break, my student came up to me sad and asked me if she could go home with me. At that momment, I realized that I finally reached her. I was the only teacher she would listen to at our school. Two months later, I found out the student was being abused at home. I was the only person in her life that showed her I loved her inspite of her behavior. I still make an effort to check on her every week. I want her to know that I will always be there for her. Experiences like this is what make teaching special.

Nicole L.K.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Elena,

I enjoyed reading your story. It really brings it home why we (teachers) really wanted to be teachers in the first place. The reason I feel is to help students and guide them through the education maze. And better students as young individuals for later success.

What keeps me going every day is the fact that I can make a child feel happy,safe, they belong, and all the tons of motivation to keep their learning going.

All the students I work with have a special place in my heart. I can not skip on not one student, a teacher never knows what doors they open up for their student. And a student never knows how he/she can motivate teachers to meet students needs in the classroom.

Rasheda Dewberry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elean,

Your blog really hit close to home with me. I am a third year teacher at an Alternative school. The children that I deal with have the same types of problems that you described in Manuel. Some come to me as model students but become a product of their environment. It is sad to see this occur in our children. Some of them do become our own "little babies" and we inherit a sense of responsibility to protect them from their surroundings. Because of the environment that I work in, I have had a few students to touch my heart. I now understand that it is not just because they respect you as their teacher and as an individual, but because you have become someone in their life that they can count on and trust. Every human being really just wants someone to believe in them - and that includes our students. Thank you for sharing your account with us.

Diane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great story! I often think that perhaps I shouldn't gete so involved with my students and their families. Your post showed me exactly why I need to keep forming relationships with my students and their families. I often wonder where many of my former students are now. I moved away from Los Angeles and lost track of many people. Hopefully, I will find some of them now through the many social networking sites. Keep inspiring students!

Diane Machado's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I often wonder where many of my former LAUSD students are now. I moved away from Los Angeles years ago and lost touch with many. I have also sometimes questioned if I should get so involved with my students and their families. Your story gave me the answer...YES! The relationships we form with our students are extremely important and can have lasting positive effects!

Hilary Hopseker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the studies on resiliency it literally takes only one person who believes in you, who gets you, who sees you for what you really are to make a difference. Those connections can make the worst situations somehow a little more manageable. I don't mean to downplay what Manuel is dealing with. I think it is tragic the decisions he is having to make, the reality he is dealing with. But let's just say that in one moment where he is about to do something destructive that he remembers how you see him, he remembers who he is. This could alter his actions. Or if he takes it really far out there, he can maybe have some reflection and return. I had a 4th grade teacher that believed in me. There was a lot going on in my life and yet I would do anything to learn in his class. He believed in me! He made me believe in myself. He gave me hope. I tracked him down about 5 years ago- "hey, you taught me 25 years ago...and it really made a difference in my life!" Thanks to Mr. Bell! Hopefully someday I will be that teacher for some of my students! Also, you rock Elena. The compassion, knowledge, and empathy you have shown when I was a student at State was immense.

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you, Hilary! I'm so glad you cited the resiliency studies--they are both encouraging (how little it takes!) and heart-breaking (how little it could take!). I'm also so glad you contacted Mr. Bell. I'm sometimes surprised how students pop back into my life after not hearing from them for year, and it means SOOOOO much. I always tell my students that (actually, I beg them to stay in touch). They remember. And finally--how are you? Let me know!

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