Every August, days before the fall semester begins, I arrive at Palisades High School, part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, to prepare for the new semester. I study the quad, which is green, well manicured, and devoid of students.
Two days after Labor Day, that quad will be packed with 2,700 students brimming with hopes, anxieties, expectations.
On that first day of school, I always stand off to the side and wonder what dramas will play out in the coming year. Who’ll get pregnant? Drop out? Come out? Move out? Who’ll end up in rehab or be accepted to Berkeley or Yale or UCLA?
Twenty-seven hundred teenagers from more than 100 ZIP codes. Things happen.
As I study them on the first day of class, I am certain of only one thing: I have no clue what is going to happen to anyone.
On the first day of school, I always stand off to the side and wonder what dramas will play out in the coming year.
In 2005, I taught a class of 36 10th grade English honor students. It was the best class I’d taught in my 14 years of teaching. Probably the best class I’ll ever teach. No matter how badly things went in my other classes, no matter what sadness might have befallen me off campus, I looked forward every day to seeing these three dozen superstars—visual artists, scholar-jocks, stars of the drama department, carriers of multiple Advanced Placement classes.
Some aspired to be writers. Alex, who read the complete works of Mario Puzo during class time, studied screenwriting on his own time. Diana wrote for the school newspaper. Adrina and Hannah, whose heads were always buried in novels that they wouldn’t be assigned until their junior year of college or beyond, wrote essays with the insights of women twice their age.
And then there was Dillon. Our class poet.
He sat on the last row, pen in hand, always writing or sketching or scribbling.
On the first day of class, I tossed out a prompt to see what was rolling around in these kids’ minds.
When I asked who’d like to read what they wrote, paralysis set in.
Then Dillon, this kid with a surfer’s tan and a permanent smile, raised his hand.
“I’ll read,” he said.
“Thanks.” I am always grateful for the first volunteer.
“Mind if I stand?” he asked.
“Mind if I read from your podium?” Dillon asked.
Fourteen years, 2,000-plus students, and no one had ever had the guts to ask to read from my podium.
“Knock yourself out,” I said.
I couldn’t believe there was a 16-year-old on the planet that possessed such confidence. I wasn’t sure if I should be happy to have landed such a student, or wary that he was about to take over my class.
Dillon positioned himself at my podium as if public speaking were his profession.
Then he read.
My first thought was, “He plagiarized this. No 16-year-old is that good.”
Then I realized I had just given him the assignment.
He actually was that good.
When he finished reading, his classmates applauded. That almost never happens.
“Who else wants to read?” I asked.
It was as if the main attraction had performed first, and now I was searching for his opening act.
A few brave writers followed.
For 40 weeks, I was blessed with teaching the most wonderfully gifted, confident, intellectually curious, cool, fun, funny, sweet, talented students who ever congregated in my classroom at one time.
And of those, six shyly admitted that one day they’d like to be writers. I believed that all might succeed. But if I had to put my money on just one, I would have chosen Dillon. At 16, he had already discovered his writer’s voice, had been bitten by a love of language, by the need and the obsession to write.
I loved him for his determination, for his yearning to make his mark on the world with his words.
This past July, 1,000 mourners, mostly teenagers, buried Richard Dillon Henry, the victim of a car crash, at Forest Lawn Mortuary in Los Angeles. A man who has worked there for years said that only two other funerals at this site were so well attended: the one for Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC, and the one for the journalist Daniel Pearl.
My students and I were devastated. Speechless. Distraught. We still are.
When I returned to Palisades High School this September and looked across the quad, wondering what would become of the young men and women in my classes during the course of the year, I was missing that kid who stood at my podium and read, who would have been a senior this fall, applying to colleges, playing soccer and surfing, and hitting the books to maintain his rank in the top 4 percent of his graduating class.
I’ll miss his joyful presence this year and in the years beyond. And I’ll miss the words that Dillon Henry would have written for us, had he lived a longer life.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week