One Thanksgiving I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the NYC Thanksgiving Day Parade and sit in the VIP grandstand to watch the floats go by. As we were moving through the barricades to our seats, I heard a voice repeatedly call out my name from one of the NYC Parks Department trucks. I saw that it was a former student of mine at Adlai Stevenson High School (AES) in the Bronx. I’ve talked about AES here before. Its population was 99.5% Black and Latino and it serviced some of the poorest zip codes in America. In our brief moment of chat, this former student told me he worked for the Parks Department, was doing great and making a sh..t load of money. Triple time today, he told me. Then he thanked me for helping him get through high school.
Early on I had a tall, lanky kid in my Freshman English class who was a musician and pretty talented since he was taken into the school orchestra immediately after the music teacher heard him play just one time. He was so tall I asked him if he played basketball—you could see him a full head above any crowd—but he told me it wasn’t his thing, that music was. This was all well and good except the young man decided he’d rather spend his time with the music teacher in the music room than attend my class. Even though he did his work (except for class work) and turned in all papers and was quite proficient in ELA, much more so than most of the others in his class, after repeated warnings and even conversations with his parents about his attendance, he ended up failing.
Exactly nine years later, this same young man reappeared. He came into the school wearing a fine-tailored business suit and when he found me, he told me he had specifically come to seek me out. I remembered him not by name but by height, and damned if he wasn’t a strapping young man in his young twenties. He told me he was a doctor now, that he had graduated medical school and was interning in one of the Bronx hospitals. He wanted to thank me for failing him, he said, because it taught him to show up.
We’ll call her Lori here. When Lori was my student, she couldn’t write a complete sentence and both wrote and spoke in vernacular. But Lori was smart, very smart. Problem was, she was too pretty and the bad boys loved her. Worse, she loved the bad boys, though eventually I would find out from some of her friends that a lot of how she acted with the bad boys was for show and went no further. Thank God! I had Lori as a formal student twice and by the end of her freshman year she had mastered writing enough to be ready to move forward. I didn’t see her at all in her tenth grade year, but in eleventh grade, she sought me out and insisted upon joining the Debate Team. The team was already set for that year, so she worked in the background helping the team members research and prepare their constructives.
As a senior, Lori was a debate star and constructive-writing pro, hell-bent upon going to law school, which she did as I discovered a few years later when I received a note from her with her business card. The note said she’d gone to Harvard Law and upon graduation had scored a position in one of the law firms in Manhattan. The note was signed “From the kid who couldn’t write a sentence.”
Lori, by the way, is just one of many of my students who made it through law school and these are just a few of my memories. My colleagues, the ones I actually respected and befriended, all have their own and together we account for many bad kids gone good. I say bad kids because some of them were bad kids. Most of them, however, just needed to be socialized (sometimes much more than needing to be taught high school curriculum). I say bad kids because sometimes society looks at them that way. In reality, they were just kids who needed to be guided constantly until they could guide themselves.
I don’t much talk about my Doctorate but my dissertation deals with “these kids” and what determines whether or not the ones who are in jeopardy make it through high school. Unlike what the grubby, greedy little curriculum-peddling, book-selling, upwardly-mobile professional pedants would have you believe, it’s really quite simple: one single adult who guides, pushes and stands by them no matter what. That’s basically the crux of what it takes to get “these kids” through high school. The problem is that society is not willing to walk that walk.