Thursday, June 23, 2005

Students Who Make it and Students Who Don't

I teach elementary school in a small "urban" district. You may read about these kids but I work with them. I meet their families, such as they are, and deal with their pathologies. Some of these kids raise themselves out of their circumstances. Some don't. Some come from solid families. Some come from situations that make you wonder how a child made it to elementary school age.

This is on my mind because I recently heard that the brother of a former student was murdered by his girlfriend. He was in high school. Some of his friends had t-shirts made in his memory. His best friend was a tutoring student of mine, a big tough football player who looks like nothing can hurt him. This hurt him.

A few months ago I ran into a student who went to my school but wasn't in my class. She was working at a local Quizno's. She was in the class across the hall and was sent to my room when she was bad, which as she tells it, was regularly. She told me about a former student of mine, still in high school, who died when he wrapped the car he had stolen around a tree in his attempted getaway. I remember this kid. He was a member of my "class from Hell." He wasn't one of the troublesome kids. At worst, he was a goof. He was friends with some of the rough kids. He may have fallen in with that "bad crowd" we hear so much about. There's another kid from that class, that I do see every once in a while. He was one of the troublesome kids. He's come around since then and is doing well in high school.

A few years ago, I was having a parent-teacher conference with the mother of a student who was doing very well. Then I asked about the older brother, also a former student. This mother's eyes teared up and she managed to choke out a few words. He'd be out of jail soon. He had plans to straigten out his life. He did. The last I heard, he was managing a MacDonald's.

Another mom at another parent-teacher conference broke into tears as she recounted the story of her absent father. She was desperately trying to avoid having her son grow up without a father or grandfather. She wasn't succeeding.

Other former students who "fell in with a bad crowd" have been in and out of jail. Some surprised me, but others didn't.

I had a very bright student once who spent his days wandering around the class. He sometimes caused trouble, but he wrote well, and did well on tests. Things got worse as the year went on though. One day the adoptive father came in to talk to me. His family had also adopted the boy's sister. They were going to keep her but they were sending him back. Both children had been taken from their natural family. The boy was taught by his natural parents to beg on the street and to steal. He was causing trouble at the adoptive home and exposing himself to other children. I last saw the sister before she went off to college. She stopped by to give me her graduation picture. She said her brother was doing well. I don't know if she was telling the truth. I want to believe that she was.

Another adopted student I recently had also was troubled with light fingers. He was bright (as so many of these kids are) but spaced out regularly into his Pokemon/Yu-Gi-Oh world. I couldn't send him to the bathroom by himself because he would wander the school looking for things to steal. Sometimes he found them. The adoptive family was trying to give him back. I would like to know what happened to him to make him into what he was.

One little girl had been adopted by her foster family. She wasn't an easy student. The adoptive mom filled me in on the details of the sexual abuse the child had suffered from an earlier family prior to fourth grade. Mom went into more detail than I wanted to hear, and did it in front of her own young children. The girl was in counseling, but began shoplifting in middle school. The last I saw of her she had just been caught and almost injured trying to escape a heist.

I ran into one former student who was happy because he had just been hired as a hospital custodian. I remembered him as a nice kid, but he struggled mightily in class. He had a tough time reading. This was before I knew how to teach reading phonetically. Now, I could teach him to read. He wouldn't have to struggle. Around that same time I found out from someone else that the mother that I'd been encouraging to help her children by reading to them and with them every day, and don't waste money for books on tape, was illiterate herself. She was too embarrassed to admit it to me.

On the other hand-

I was invited to the graduation of a former student. She now has her master's degree in architecture. Other students have gotten their business degrees and are working. Sometimes I see them in their spiffy business-wear.

One former student enlisted in the army so he could get medical training on his way to being a doctor.

One day I was in the office when a substitute teacher was filling our her paperwork for the day. She looked familiar. She was a former student. She's married and working on her teaching certificate.

On the day of our last presidential election, there was a huge line of voters at our school. I recognized the mom and dad of a brother and sister whom I had taught. The woman in front of them said hi to me. She looked familiar, probably the mother of a student I thought. Of course when I asked the parents how their daughter was, the laugh was on me. Their daughter had just said hi to me. She was in law school. I don't remember what her brother was doing, but it was something good.

My first year teaching, there was a fourth grader across the hall. He was a trouble maker. He was also the biggest, toughest kid in the grade. He cried like a baby when his father cancelled a promise weekend visit. He excited all of the teachers when he showed up years later after deciding to get his act together.

The football player I mentioned earlier had a very rough time in elementary school. He's now an all-city and all-state football player and going to college. He still might need help, but he's determined to get an education.

What does all of this mean? I don't know. I do know that all children can get the education they need if teachers are trained correctly (but they're not) and if parents send their students to school ready to learn (which they don't). I also know that proper teacher training can overcome parental attitude. This is made clear in the book, Marva Collin's Way by Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin. Children want to learn, and if we can cultivate that willingness, and lead them to success, we've got them.

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