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Twenty-Two Years & Lost Possibilities

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Our local newspaper runs a "22 years ago today" item most days, a quick snapshot of what people were up to 22, 44 and 66 years ago. This morning I picked up the paper and saw a name I think about every year.

The student was in my class, long long ago. He was what we like to call an "at risk" student, which is such a professional term to use, when the human reality of at risk students is not so clinical. He was a student who could have gone either way-- having the ability and potential to make a stable and happy life for himself, but in circumstances that could easily push him in other directions. Watching an at risk student is like watching a dancer walking along the edge of a knife in a stiff wind, to one side fields of clover and to the other side, a long plunge into darkness.

I won't tell you that this student had the heartwarming charm of a television-ready at risk kid. He was not easy to like, abrasive and with a hair-trigger, not inclined to be kind to his peers. But not stupid, and able to make connections to people that he considered worth his time. I don't remember having to drag and carry him through my class. I didn't particularly build a strong connection with him, but he was never as completely openly defiant for me as he was in other classes. Win, I guess? He had the tools.

But life circumstances were on his side. I don't remember where his mother was, and he was briefly homeless after a huge fight with his father. The subject of the fight? His father refused to his newest batch of drugs with the son.

All of us who teach see the kids. At my school, we call them children who would have been better off raised by wolves. The student who was exhausted all winter because the money that should have gone to pay the heating bill for the trailer went to beer instead. The student whose father punished her misbehavior by shaving her head before sending her to school. The student whose mother was in prison because Mom had tried to drive her car over the eight-year-old child. On purpose.

Some of the students facing these kinds of long odds do great. Others who face something as pedestrian as a parent who can't get it together after a divorce end up in the weeds. I suppose you can try to point to "grit" or some such thing, but you might as well explain it with "the breaks" or "good fortune" or "the right boost at the right moment."

Anyway. The student I was talking about was balanced on just such a knife edge. And then, about twenty-two years ago, he got in a fight with a pair of passing motorists on a back road. Nobody knows exactly what they fight was about, but the end result was that my student took a gun and shot the two people in the car dead. The item in today's paper wayback report was about the beginning of his trial when he was eighteen years old. He was convicted and sent to prison.

He was the first time I had a murderer in class. It was a lot to absorb. I thought, really, what the hell am I even doing here? Should I have spent more time on literature aimed at building empathy and impulse control? Or is my contribution just supposed to be that I'm making sure that he will take good, solid reading and writing skills with him to prison?

I just looked at a teacher survey in which teachers overwhelmingly said that making a difference in a child's life is both a great motivator to enter teaching and a great reward of doing the work. But that "making a difference" thing is just such a tricky uncertain thing. I always tell the story of my fifth grade music teacher who confronted the boys in the back of the room and forced us to match pitch and listen and try, and how that moment was so hugely powerful-- because of that I was able to pass the music aptitude test that I had previously failed and because of that I started to learn an instrument and that has made all the difference. In maybe fifteen minutes, that teacher affected the entire trajectory of my life. Huge. And yet, we should also notice this-- it did not particularly affect the trajectory of the rest of the monotone yahoos that I was sitting with.

Teachers are like prospectors, panning through mountains of ordinary day-to-day earth, looking for the little golden nuggets of possibility so that we can try to clean them off, buff them up, help them find what they can be. And yet we live with the knowledge that some nuggets slip past us, unseen, unpolished. Sometimes we find nothing at all.

I'm not sitting here twenty-two years later imagining that if I had come up with just the right lesson, two people would still be alive and a young man wouldn't have gone to prison. Sometimes-- often, even-- the world is just far larger and more powerful than our classrooms. The story of that student is a reminder to me that we are preparing students for a future without any way of knowing what that future will be, a wide world of possibilities cloaked in darkness and equal parts beautiful and terrible. We do the best we can for as many as we can, and that is never, ever enough, because sometimes it is just beyond our power to keep them from rushing toward a dark and consuming future, scattering their possibilities like ashes in the wind.

It is all so big and terrible and awesome and awful, and when somebody says, "Well, just read this lesson script that's aligned to these standards so that you can prepare the student to get a good score on this Big Standardized Test, and if you do all that, the student will grow up to be well-paid and happy. Guaranteed"-- when somebody says all that I just want to look at them and ask, "What the hell are you even talking about?"

We fail. In public education, we fail a lot, and if we want to do the work of public education, we have to search every day for ways to get it even slightly more right than we did yesterday. I have remembered my student every year for the past twenty-two, reminding me that some students carry huge loads, in their pasts, in their presents, and even in their futures. What I find most enraging and frustrating and gobsmacking about modern ed reform is its relentless devotion to solutions that aren't solutions. I don't know what any of us could have done for that student twenty-two years ago, but I feel absolutely certain that aligning his education to a set of bogus standards or offering him a charter school or a personalized instructional computer program or  getting him really ready for a BS Test-- that none of those things would have made a difference, would undoubtedly have made things worse because at least twenty-two years ago I could talk to him like a human being and not a content-delivery specialist with a stack of prescribed lessons to get through.

I fear that, this time, I have wandered in a circle that doesn't even close. So, an aimless squiggle. But on days like this I feel as if those of us who teach are working on such big things in such a big space with such a huge vast mess of human stuff in front of us, and reformsters insist on offering us little, tiny, grossly inadequate tools, as if they really just don't understand the situation at all. Here's a pair of tweezers; now go break down that beached whale into hamburgers.

Every day possibilities are lost to us, to our students, to their families. I would like to do better. If people aren't going to help us with that work, I wish they would at a minimum, stop interfering. I'm not a young man. I don't have twenty-two more years to work at this.

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Peter Greene has been a classroom teacher of secondary English for thirty-many years. He lives and works in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania where he plays ni a town band, works in community theater, and writes for the local paper.

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Guest Tuesday, 25 October 2016