Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

My Purpose

By Laurie Barnoski — November 29, 2005 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
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.

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.

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.

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.

Related Tags:

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Researchers Search for Hidden Graves at Native American Boarding Schools
The bodies of more than 80 Native American children are buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in central Nebraska.
6 min read
A member of a team affiliated with the National Park Service uses ground-penetrating radar in hopes of detecting what is beneath the soil while searching for over 80 Native American children buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Genoa, Neb. For decades the location of the student cemetery has been a mystery, lost over time after the school closed in 1931 and memories faded of the once-busy campus that sprawled over 640 acres in the tiny community of Genoa.
A researcher uses ground-penetrating radar last month to search for more than 80 Native American children buried at the site of the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in Genoa, Neb.
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Equity & Diversity More States Push Schools to Drop Native American Mascots
At states' urging, schools will drop Native American mascots, citing the harm of racist stereotypes. The changes bring logistical and political challenges.
6 min read
A high school football player in a blue helmet with an orange arrow on it tackles a player in a white and green uniform.
A player from the Westlake High School Warriors in Thousand Oaks, Calif., plays football in a helmet with an arrowhead logo. California has banned only certain Native American-themed mascots, but other states have passed broader restrictions.
Alex Gallardo
Equity & Diversity Schools Trying to Prioritize Equity Have Their Work Cut Out for Them, Survey Shows
The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing inequities in education. Practitioners and researchers offer advice on how to move forward.
5 min read
v42 16 sr equity cover intro 112322
Illustration by Chris Whetzel for Education Week