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 His clothing indicated his gang affiliation; he was disengaged and withdrawn in classes.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

Christina Mills's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If you have a good rapport with you students, they will remember you. You have taken so many crucial steps for building a relationship with your students, and I applaud you. I too believe that communication is an absolute necessity. I think that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are human, and they yearn for the same sense of belonging. If we, as educators, create an environment based on dedication and devotion for the well-being of our students, then they cannot help but want to be a part of it. Honestly, rapport is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching because it requires all parties to drop their guards and allow others in. If every teacher was capable of this, then the future of education would not be hanging in the balance. Therefore, it is obvious you are on the right track and your students are lucky to have you. You may not see the impact of your efforts now, but you will.

Best of luck,

Christina Mills

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your comment. For years it was so hard for me to believe I was making an impact on my students. I was so lucky to have a veteran educator as my coach who always told me I was making a huge difference and that I needed to be patient and I'd see how I'd affected kids. Listen to your colleagues--they've seen enough teachers to be able to recognize that you've got something special with kids. And tell your students to stay in touch with you! They will. Onward! Elena

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you so much for sharing this story! What a beautiful image you created for me - of a young athlete and a quilt, and of your role in her life. I find that while I need my own stories of my own impact on kids, I also need those from others - I need to know that there are other teachers out there who care as passionately as I do and who extend themselves when they're needed. I know there are others out there; I know many personally. But I am always looking for more - It is almost as if the more stories I can gather, the more I know that there are others doing this kind of hard loving as well, the more strength I have to keep on. Thank you!

Simone Murray's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

That was a very heart warming post! You are a wonderful person and teacher. This student and many more will never forget you because of all the greatness you have bestowed on their lifes! You should feel so accomplished! I hope I touch my students in the way you have touched this young man!

Candace's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Elena.
Thank you for sharing you story. I hope that Manuel is doing well and is changing his life. Every story that I hear like this reminds me why I am a teacher. I can only hope to inspire a child or impact a child in this way. I teach "at risk" students who deal with issues that I would never haved imagined that children in the United States would have to deal with. Some deal with hunger, homelessness, and violence. Some students have seen their parents get into violent fights that involve guns. Some students have to move each month because their parents can't afford to pay the rent the next month. Some have had to fish for their food. If they didn't catch anything, they didn't eat. (I do not work in a rural area, I don't even know where they would have been fishing.) Some save food from their lunch so that they can take it home to their younger brothers and sisters. I can only hope that when these children come to school, they feel safe and have a sense of consistency. I hope that I can reveal to them a world that can unlock doors for them. I want them to realize that they don't have to continue some of the patterns that have been lived out by their families. I want them to see that they have options. Your story inspires me to keep going, and that teachers really do make a difference.

Debra Sanders's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your story was absolutely touching! I read it twice it was so good. I have been teaching for nine years now and I have watched all types of students come and go, but like you I have a Manuel. My Manuel has not been as fortunate as yours. The gangs got the better part of him and now he sits at home with a large portion of his brain removed. It breaks my heart everytime I think about that 4 a.m. call I got. He too, was my child before I had children, so I understand your love and care for him. I think of him daily because now he won't even talk to me. After his recovery, and my son was born I ask him to visit me and his response was, he couldn't face me. He said he had let me down and he couldn't face the fact he failed. I explained he could never fail me, that I was only disappointed but that was an emotion and could be overcome with time. I explained that I was just happy he was alive. Just keep saying prayers for Manuel and don't give up on him. Most people don't understand that teachers' jobs go way beyond the classroom. The young man I speak of watched his mother be shot to death while holding his nine day old baby sister when he was 13. He was in my Keyboarding class, I'll never forget the day I decided I would take him under my wings and make sure he graduated. That was the hardest most trialing times of my life, yet graduation night was the most exciting day of my life. It meant more to me to give him his diploma than my sister whom graduated the same night. Nobody understood the tears of joy that I felt but my own mother. She said there is nothing like seeing your child succeed. I wish you and Manuel the best, I will keep him in my prayers.

John Bish's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is so sad that some kids fall prey to gangs and violence. As a teacher, I try and preach about education being the ticket out of any negative or unwanted environment.

Trying to make a difference keeps me going but it's hard sometimes. Urban schools have so many issues and many of my kids could care less about their education.

Seeing past students working or in college makes me feel good about what I'm doing. Being a coach, It's especially gratifying to see someone earn a scholarship and then go on to excel at the next level. One of my players who just got by in high school is now making A's and B's in college and now understands the importance of going to class and applying yourself.

John Bishop
Jonesboro High School
Clayton Co.
Atlanta, Georgia

Elena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you, so much, for sharing your heartbreaking and beautiful story. I am so touched by the stories teachers are sharing of how they go so far beyond the classroom. In spite of the pain, I know that I'd never want to do anything else - the connection that we are fortunate to make with these young people is irreplaceable. And don't give up on your "Manuel" either. You never know when he'll be ready to see you. I wouldn't be surprised if he calls you one day.
Thank you so much. You really touched my heart.
With gratitude,


Chellita Carlyle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Elena,

I really enjoyed reading your story. It really made me think, will I have this effect on my students at some point? I try to support my students beyond the classroom by attending their games or coming to a program that they're involved in. For the past two summers I worked with a program called Upward Bound. This program is for high school students and helps prepare them for college. I was the dorm director and I would share with the girls important lessons of life. Even today when I see them where ever I may be, they tell me thank you and always ask am I coming back this summer. It makes me feel good to know that they actually listened to me and that they think so highly of me as a role model. In my eyes I'm just being me.

Becky Polzin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Like all the others before me, Elena, I have to thank you for your story. I have my own student with special challenges. His personal life is very difficult because of poverty and a suicide in the family. Although he's bright, funny, and athletic, he's not succeeding in school; it's very hard for him to focus. Lately, however, he has been doing better. I hope I'm making a difference.

Like the writer "Beckie" below, I'm also taking a class that uses Sonia Nieto's book, and similar ideas went through my head as I read your story. She could probably use several of the writers here as examples of the point she is trying to make.

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