I had a thought-provoking day earlier this week involving two of my former students. They are both eighteen-years-old and on very different paths in life. One’s future is full of promise and hope; the other has gone down a troubled road. I’m left thinking about each with the simple question—why?
I was one of those teachers who had a hard time letting things go at the end of the day. When I saw obstacles in my students’ lives, I worried about them. That doesn’t make me special or unique. There are plenty of other teachers like me who have a hard time turning it off when they get home. It’s healthier in the long run when you can remind yourself that you can’t fix everything, but our students are like our children.
I spent many a restless night, lying in bed, worrying about children who had so many hurdles to overcome. Some of these problems were easier to tackle than others. If a child was struggling academically, I knew that I could get him/her extra tutoring. If there weren’t help available in my school, I would do it myself, offering the family the help.
If a child was struggling socially, I tried every way possible to provide guidance. Sometimes I offered advice, but mostly I listened.
I don’t like the term “bad kid” because it implies that a child is choosing to act by antisocial means. The reality is that most of these “troubled kids” are expressing their anger at school because they have things going on in their lives that would make anyone angry.
The hardest cases for me were those children surrounded by dysfunction. It could be a parent in prison, a loved one suffering from drug or alcohol abuse, not having a stable place to call home or something as tragic as not having a loving parent or guardian.
Those are the kids I lost sleep over because I realized their lives were unfair. It’s heartbreaking when you know that a kid would become successful and live a happy and full life if they had a level playing field.
Teaching brings moments of great joy and sadness. Sophia, a girl I taught in third-grade nine years ago, reached out to me and invited me to her high school basketball game. One of the remarkable things is that I had probably only seen her twice in the subsequent nine years since she had been in my class.
All of the girls on the team recognized a former teacher who had helped them in their educational journey. I was incredibly touched, but mostly I felt proud of her. She has gone from a shy kid to one destined for great things. She’s intelligent, charming, confident, and poised. I learned she wants to go away to college to study to become a dentist. I’m sure you can feel my pride, reading my words.
Sophia’s path was predictable. She was born into a beautiful family that provided her love and stability. She had to put the work in and deserves full credit for that, but she also had excellent support. I can’t help but think of how lucky I’ve been in my life.
Ironically, the same day that this wonderful moment happened, my heart was also dealt a blow. I opened the paper and read about a former student arrested for drug trafficking. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to go into a lot of details about that, but my heart sank.
That student was not a “bad kid,” either; he was quite likable, both among his peers and teachers. Like Sophia, I had only seen him a couple of times in the past decade. The picture in the newspaper was not one of a hardened criminal, but one of a young man who looked like he wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Now I am left wondering—why??? Of course, there is no easy answer. I can’t claim to know what could have led him down this path. I remember his grandma was raising him. She was doing her best. I have no way of knowing if she passed, or he just got himself mixed up with the wrong crowd. There is no way I would have predicted this outcome.
I believe in second chances. This young man’s life is not over, and I hope whatever the resolution is to his current situation, he turns his life around. Sometimes all it takes is having someone believe in you.
The lesson learned for me is there are no guarantees in life. Young kids are at the mercy of their environments. As children get older, they can choose the type of people to associate with. Friends are essential to our quality of life. When we surround ourselves with good role models and others who share our values, we are giving ourselves the best chance. I can only wish that my student gets back on the right path.