Reflections of a teacher who refused to give up on teenagers.
I have had the pleasure and honor of getting to know 8,000 teenagers. For the last 32 years, I have awakened each day certain that when I went to work, I had the opportunity to change someone’s life for the better. I am a high school English teacher.
Inspiring honors students to love literature and creative writing has been a joy. But my challenge and purpose in life has been to teach the at-risk kids.
Who are the at-risk kids? These are the students who have police records, attention deficit disorder, lives of poverty, broken homes. These are the students it is easier to kick out because they don’t pay attention in class. Teaching a lesson without them makes a teacher’s life easier, but what are these students supposed to do after they are kicked out? Do we as professional educators look the other way when ex-students anesthetize themselves watching TV all day, or sell drugs to make ends meet? Do we say, “That student had it coming,” when we read about the troublemaker in the police reports and gossip about an impoverished student’s failures at school?
This attitude is not why I grabbed teaching for my life’s work.
I became a teacher so that I could make a difference. This sounds kind of corny, doesn’t it? But I would rather work hard at something I feel passionate about than pass the time earning an easy living. Teaching has not been easy, but I can assure you that, in 32 years, I have never watched the minutes pass on the face of a clock. I am too engaged with the teenagers in my care.
Since I started teaching at the age of 22, I have come to regard these at-risk kids as my heroes. I came from a middle-class neighborhood, with a dad who went to work every day, a mom who was a housewife, and dinner on the table each night. My life was predictable; I never knew this was a luxury. I did not see what my students have to experience, like living with a drug-addicted dad for five years, or sneaking out to get away from his friends when they come over to get high, as one girl in my class has had to do. What would it be like to be on the run from the police, or never in a school for more than one year? I knew nothing about these things.
My at-risk students choose to get out of bed each day. They get themselves to school without breakfast. They sit in their classes, often not understanding the material because they lack basic skills. They try to blend in with the other students, who wear expensive clothes and drive flashy cars. At 3 p.m., they walk home to an apartment or trailer without an adult greeting or supervising them. There is no quiet place to study. And they repeat the same routine the next day and the day after that. Why? Somehow they know that earning a high school diploma and learning more than they already know means something.
How can I give up on these heroes? They inspire me to try my hardest to help them succeed. I may put a hand on a shoulder, or acknowledge that the girl who is yelling is having a bad afternoon. I may stay up past bedtime to write a letter to one who needs a boost, or be firm and say, “Please come in after school for help.” Maybe I can stop a lesson about the topic sentence and teach a student how to grieve after she hears an announcement at lunch about a fatal car accident involving one of her classmates. The possibilities to help and encourage are endless in my day.
My purpose in life is to refuse to give up on teenagers, any teenager. It was my purpose when I was 22 years old, and it is my purpose at age 55. On my first day on the job, I looked into a student’s eyes and sensed that my life’s work was about to unfold. I knew that deep down I had the resources to affect a teenager’s life in a positive way. I also knew that I was about to embark on a career in which I could use every bit of knowledge I had ever learned, or could ever learn, to reach every one of my students. I have not always been successful, but I have tried. And what I have given my at-risk students, I have gotten back, tenfold.
Walking by John’s open casket, I did not know what to do. I leaned in close to his mother and whispered, “I was John’s teacher.” She pulled me close to her face, looked me in the eye, and said, “John loved you. Thank you for teaching him to write poetry.” I fumbled upright and walked on.
A parent approached and wrapped her arms around me. “This is from Sarah Straus. You taught her daughter. She is a productive person because of you. Her mother told me to hug you if I ever saw you and to tell you that she prays for you each night.”
Sitting at a birthday party of one of my students, I realized that I was the only person invited who was not a relative. I recalled many former afternoons facing this now 21-year-old across a glass partition in jail. He had paid his dues and was ready to try again.
A graduate whom I had not seen for many years stopped by after school when he saw me working late. His eyes were thick with tears as he spoke: “You never gave up on me. You never ignored me. You always encouraged me to get my work in and pass all of my classes, even when I wasn’t nice to you. Thank you.”
I will not measure the success of my life by the money I have made or the value the public puts on my profession. The purpose of my life has been to encourage, teach, and give hope to every teenager. I have had 8,000 chances. I am a most fortunate woman.
Vol. 25, Issue 13, Page 37Published in Print: November 30, 2005, as My Purpose