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 His clothing indicated his gang affiliation; he was disengaged and withdrawn in classes.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

Diane Rohrer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elena, your story brought tears to my eyes. I work in a Title 1 school, and we have many children who don't live the best of lives at home. As someone else posted many of these children come to school hungry and some are homeless. They don't live in a stable invironment and move from month to month.

I worry about several of our students on a nightly basis. I wonder what they are having for dinner, or if they are having dinner. I wonder what they are going to witness before bedtime, is it going to be their parents doing drugs or getting arrested? Are they going to sleep in a warn comfy bed? All of these things plague me.

No matter how much trouble some of my students may try to cause me, I try to think about what that deal with before they come to school. I try to get to the root of their problems and have patience. I don't let them get away with "stuff", by this I mean although that live in a bad place, I want them to respect others and most of all learn respect for themselves. I want them to know that they can succeed no matter what is dealt them. I hope that I make a difference and that I am a positive influence on my students.

Diane

Giscard Bernard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Greetings and Salutations.
Elena,
What a heart moving experience that you shared. Just when we think that our students don't get it. Just when we feel that we as educators somehow we did not get through to a particular student, what do we have? An experience like yours. This experience exemplifies that as educators we can produce wondrous results, when we show emotion and a listening ear. Continue the awesome job out there in California.
I am a 10th grade World History high school teacher in South Florida, and currently enrolled in Walden University Masters program.

Enolia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Elena,

I really loved reading your story. It is at the heart of what we do and who we are. As teachers our job is not only about core subjects, but about core values. It is really tough seeing our students veer off from the path that leads to success. Our jobs as educators do not end in the classroom they just begin. I love seeing the hope you have for Manuel and the encouragement and support that you are still trying to supply to him after all of these years. Manuel and other students like him make our job worth while. It is not just about test scores and grade point averages, but its about creating change and promoting success for life. I also grew up in the inner city with all odds stacked against me, but because of teachers like yourself I became a teacher. Students like Manuel need to know that their surroundings and up bringings do not dictate their future. I was always told by my parents "If you reach for the stars, if you fall you will land on the clouds". You have to want more and reached pass the sky.

Keep up th good work Elena!

Enolia Breeden

Kate Jorgensen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elena,

Thank you for sharing your story with us. I work in an urban school and I worry about my students every day. Where are they and what are they doing? I know sometimes we have to continue telling and asking ourselves why we became teachers, but at the same time we are a safe place for the children. We create a place that they can come to and they know the routines. I believe we make a difference everyday to someone or in some way.

Thanks again for sharing.

Cedrick Howard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Elena,
Thanks for sharing a very touching story about your impact on Manuel. Your story alone, inspires teachers like myself to continue to do what we do day in and day out. You remind me so much of my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Yoland Stephens. She followed me from the first day I entered her class until the present day. It's teachers like you Elena, that the world needs. I am a second year English teacher at the Clayton County Alternative School. Last year, I had the honor of teaching a few students who say that I have given them a new look on life. That along made me feel good and it motivated me to continue doing what's right as an educator.

Dawn Cleave's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

WOW! Thank you for your story. As I read it and then the responses that it brought out I can't help but to be teary eyed. The unconditional love you speak of is a great thing! Believing in our students and making a personal connection with them is the absolute best thing we can do for them! I hope that some day I too have made that big of a difference in one of my students' lives.

Greg Majeski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for sharing a nice warm story. I personally find that I make the strongest connections with the boys I am in charge of educating. I use sports to strengthen the relationships I build in the classroom. I coach middle and high school soccer and have built countless bonds with these young men. More importantly I make every effort to attend all games (both boys and girls) in all sports. It is just amazing how excited they are to have me there. For many of these kids, I am the only adult who shows up to give support. It is really sad. I find that if they are in my classroom currently and I come to one of their events, the difference in effort and behavior in my classroom is greatly improved. For the others, they usually come by to share stories with me before or after school and to thank me for coming out.

I guess my point is that as a teacher you need to find what works for you in making connections. For some in may be tutoring for others it may be sports but as teachers we need to find what works best.

Kasey Hazard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elena,

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I read it at the perfect time and it has really inspired me. I work with many students with behavioral difficulties at an elementary school in New York. I recently learned that over this past weekend one of my students was picked up by the police three times! I have been advocating for someone to enroll him in an extra-curricular activity, however no one has taken the initiative to do so. I have been considering doing it myself, but I am always wary of transporting students in my car. Reading your story has motivated me to figure out some way to improve the life of this student outside of school. I see so much potential in him and I am determined to do everything in my power to make sure he has a chance to experience success. Thank you again!

Miranda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Elena thank you for sharing. I have a student who moved to my school this year, that I must tell you about. Well when school started he was a;ways in trouble and I decided that I was going to keep motivated and focused. I called his mother and asked did she mind if I could mentor him as well as the school resource officer. This was a kid that had potential, but was following the wrong crew at school. His mother agreed and we formed a very good relationship with the kids. At Christmas his mother told me that she really couldn't afford to buy them gifts. My family and I adopted this family and bought things that they had on their wish list. February 28, 2009 she got sick and had a stroke and she died on March 4, 2009. The mother had no one listed as emergency contact and I was the only person she had really formed a bond with in this town. I have been grieving ever since she passed away. I really don't know how to deal with my feelings and I wonder everyday what will happen to these kids. I feel like these two children are my own and I know eventually they will probably move from their current foster family up north. I dread to see the day they move. How do you keep from becoming so attached to your students and is this unhealthy ?

Heather Rosecrans's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You wrote exactly what I was thinking. I hope that I will have the same positive impact on my students as described here. Reading this story gives me hope that I can help the children I teach in a very real way.

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