“Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.” -Colleen Wilcox
Emily Dickinson was a fool. In her naivete she probably did believe that Hope was a fragile thing that “asks not a crumb.” In fact, Hope is a ravenous thing that pecks out your insides and sucks up all the oxygen in the room.
I had a truly exceptional student who was offered scholarships by a few different private colleges. But then her father lost his job, her mother was out on disability. Even with the scholarship, she needed an additional $10,000 for freshman year. But she couldn’t get a loan and her family couldn’t help her get a loan.
Then she discovered all other options were closed to her. With all the cutbacks at state colleges and even two-year colleges, there was no late enrollment. In fact, some students who believed they had earned a spot at the nearest state college were confounded to learn that (because they didn’t reply to a certain email in a timely way) they were dropped from the school roster. They would have to wait a full year before they could begin college.
Please understand, the young person I’m talking about wasn’t just another A student. She was a true leader, possibly the most competent and responsible teenager I’ve dealt with at the school. She will spend the next year working at a fast food restaurant.
There are other students who’ve been accepted to well-respected state universities. But they end up at the local two-year community college because it’s all the family can afford (and often they need to stay and help in the family store). Trouble is, with cutbacks most of them can no longer complete community college in two years. They can’t get the classes they need for their Associates degree.
Then there’s the news I got over the summer about a student who graduated six years ago. This young man had started out as a 9th grade troublemaker, getting in fights and missing classes. But by the time he was in 11th grade, he was making positive choices. With a larger than life personality, he became a school leader. I also learned that he was a writer of great power and intensity.
The son of a single mother who had immigrated to this country, he continued to lead “the right kind of life.” He was in the police academy, especially passionate about making a difference in the lives of other kids who thought they were “tough guys” — the kind of kids who became involved with gangs and trouble the way he had once.
A few months ago he was out drinking with buddies from the police academy. He got in his car to drive home. A half hour later a man was dead and my former student was under arrest for Vehicular Manslaughter. He made a stupid mistake — one of the dumbest anyone can make — driving a car while drunk. Because of his choice that night, a family is deprived of its father.
It was my first time visiting one of my former students through thick glass. This tough, talented, caring young man was a blubbering mass who just kept repeating, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
And now I face a new class of students this year. I need to convince them to work hard so they can go on to a four-year college, even though that seems unlikely. I need to convince them to make wise choices in life so they can have bright futures. I need to convince kids who are growing up in abject poverty that there are ways for them to achieve success in America — even though I think their prospects are slim to none.
Here’s another requirement for a successful teacher: In addition to transmitting knowledge, you also have to give them hope. In times like these, that could be the toughest part.