Education Opinion

A Cautionary Tale

By Susan Graham — January 26, 2010 5 min read
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In each action we must look beyond the action at our past, present, and future state, and at others whom it affects, and see the relations of all those things. And then we shall be very cautious. Blaise Pascal

A rather long time ago, in 1971, I began my teaching career in a tiny farming community just outside El Paso. It was one of the poorest school systems in Texas. More than half of my students were first generation citizens who spoke English as a second language. Because I earned a beginning teachers’ pay and owned my own car, I was considered well to do. Because I was a 21 year old woman living alone far from family, I was considered unconventional. Because I wanted my students to have access to the world beyond our little town, I was viewed as a idealist. But because the community was kind; and because I tried hard, cared passionately, and invested myself deeply, I was accepted and I had the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the young people of that town. I had the best of intentions. This is the story of one of my students. Only the names have been changed.

Luci, like most of my students, was Hispanic. She was quiet, serious, and shy to the point of timidity, but she was curious about everything and had a huge appetite for learning. I thought she was special, and when I made a home visit her mother told me that I was her favorite teacher. But she was concerned because Luci planned to drop out of high school to get married. She wanted Luci, her only child, to graduate from high school and maybe get a job in an office, and she hoped I could influence Luci to finish her education. Luci stayed in school and she became my protégé and I, her mentor. By the time she started her senior year, she had set expectations higher than the secretarial job her mother had envisioned for her. Luci had a dream; not only did she want to finish high school, she wanted to go to college and become a teacher, just like me.

Luci was accepted to Texas Tech. Only a few of our students went away to college. Her parents were so proud of her, but I knew that they would have preferred that she aimed a little lower and stayed a little closer to home. Luci’s mother cried and her father worried. Who would take care of their little girl? It helped that Sam, one of the two African American students in the class, was headed to Texas Tech as well. Luci and Sam had known each other all their lives, they lived on the same block, and the two families shared their excitement and concerns and the long 250-mile drive to Lubbock. Luci’s parents were reassured -- she would have a connection to home.

Over winter break of her sophomore year, 1975, Luci came to see me. She loved college, her grades were good, she had made new friends, and she confided that the connection she and Sam shared had become more than friendship. They were in love and were planning to announce their intentions to marry to their parents. I questioned whether they might have mistakened loneliness for love, but she was adamant. I was concerned that they might have underestimated the pressures associated with an interracial and interfaith marriage; but she was calm and determined. Being together was their priority and she said that they’d just deal with the rest of it.

There was a great deal of dealing to be done. Both Luci and Sam’s parents had been glad to see their children be friends. Marriage was quite another story. There was no Catholic priest or Baptist minister, or walk down the aisle in a wedding gown. Luci and Sam married quietly in Lubbock, far away from home. When I saw her mother around town, she turned and walked away.

It was only a couple of years later that I walked away as well. I was married too; and my husband and I were moving east to Dallas. I lost track of most of the people from that little town in Texas, so I was surprised when I got a call from Luci one summer day in 1977. She and Sam were in town for a job interview. Luci had dropped out of college to work while Sam finished his engineering degree. She had been a secretary, just like her mother had wanted. When I asked about her education, Luci told me that the plan was for her to go back and graduate before they started a family.

Sometimes we can plan our lives like clockwork, and sometimes our lives control our plans. Luci didn’t go back to school because she was pregnant. Sam had a job offer from Luci’s employer, and they decided to stay in Lubbock. With a first grandchild on the way, they began rebuilding their relationship with parents.They were making the long drive from Lubbock, going home for Christmas, when the wreck happened.

You have to drive in far west Texas to appreciate just how lonely it can be out there. You can drive for an hour without seeing another vehicle. When Luci and Sam had a blowout in the Davis mountains, there was no one else around. Sam was pinned in the car, and Luci was thrown from the vehicle. His back was broken, but he survived. Luci lasted for almost an hour, but no one came, and he listened as she died.

I think it was the school counselor who tracked me down to tell me. She thought I should come back to that little town to attend the funeral. She said it might be helpful to the families. But I was pregnant myself and I wasn’t at all sure I would have been welcome. I didn’t want to risk the probability that her parents traced the beginning of the loss to me. I doubt that they have forgiven me. I doubt I would have if it were my only child.

I’ve never gone back to that town where I started teaching almost 40 years ago, but you can go anywhere on the internet. The old high school has been replaced. Two of my former students are on the School Board. It surprised me that they are 50-something; I forget that I was only five years older than most of them. But they were Luci and Sam’s classmates. If Luci were alive, she would be in over fifty, possibly a grandmother.

Last week I asked, “When we encourage students to have big dreams, are we ready to acknowledge we may be asking them to take big risks?” Teachers really do touch the future, and our opportunity to impact student lives is an awesome responsibility. I had good intentions when I dreamed big dreams for Luci. I was young and I meant well, but it never occurred to me that high expectations involved so much risk.

Making a difference could have unforeseen consequences. Every day, teachers touch lives; but good intentions are not enough. When we open doors for our students, we must proceed with great care and caution.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.