Yesterday, we focused on fun and reconnecting, with the warning, “There’s lots and lots of hard work ahead. Let’s relax a little bit before we dig in.” We played pub trivia and had a 12th grade Olympics at the park. Today, we split off into three different community service events. I took a wonderful group to the SF Food Bank. We had to take one train and one bus to get there, and many of them insisted on going into McDonald’s instead of taking the first bus. We arrived late and harried, but they let us box up melons and weigh out bags of pasta. We laughed together and wore hair nets. It was a fantastic way to start off the new school year.
Monday, 8/17 – 4 pm
First day of classes and we jumped right in. I assigned the first part of their UC statement, and I got a lot of pushback. T. loudly proclaims, “I’m not going to college!” N. says, “I’ve already done this. I’m not doing it again.” M. and S. tell me they’re not applying to UCs because their grades aren’t high enough.
I tell them in my calm voice, “All of you are writing a personal statement. All of you are shooting high, and all of you are applying to college because all of you have what it takes to get a college degree.”
Lots of grumbling.
I explain to T. that he can decide not to go to college at the end of the year, but I want him to be in a position to decide. I suspect he is scared of going, and that he can’t quite wrap his head around it; he’d be the first person in his family to go beyond high school. I’ll have to work hard to show him the possibilities.
I can see the fear in their faces: fear of rejection, fear of responsibility and hard work, fear of adulthood. It’s very real now, and they don’t know how to handle it.
They need lots of extra love this year.
Wednesday, 8/26 – 2:30
I see a former advisee, O., in the office. We ended on a bad note last year, when she moved out of my class because she was tired of me asking her to put her phone away. We’ve been avoiding each other ever since, which is why I’m surprised when she addresses me in the office.
“My mom’s cancer spread,” O. tells me. “She’s having surgery next week, but the doctors don’t think she has much longer.”
She says this with an expression I used to think of as a smirk. I’ve since learned that her half-smile is a defense mechanism, as is her belligerence and sharp remarks.
I sit down next to her and ask some follow-up questions. Her dad is sick with diabetes and terrible habits, her toddler nephew has moved in while his dad is in jail, and her little sister is having a hard time. O. acknowledges that she will likely become the primary caregiver for her nephew when her mother dies. Her expression never changes.
A couple of things come to my mind. One: how much tragedy this 17-year-old girl has experienced already in her life, with more on the way. At the same moment she loses her own mother, she will become one to her nephew, as well as her little sister and, in a way, to her ailing father. And all she can do is sit back and wait for the other shoe to drop.
Two: While she’s practicing being the adult of the house, she’s reaching out to me, despite our difficult break last year. She’s doing what I should have done long ago to mend our relationship.
I’m embarrassed and grateful.
I hug her and tell her how sorry I am about what’s happening to her and her family, and I apologize for how we ended things last year. She hugs me back and tells me we’re cool. And then she walks away.
Friday, 8/28 – 12:30 pm
D. comes into the room and asks for the assignment sheet from Wednesday. He’s lost his and he wants to work on it this weekend. He’s leaving early with his dad.
D.’s dad is one of the only parents I’ve not yet met, so I follow him into the hallway to introduce myself. His father could pass for his brother, he’s so young looking. I tell him who I am and how honored I am to work with D.
His dad thanks me and proceeds to gush.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him. He impresses me every single day,” he says, D. standing patiently waiting, expressionless. “He’ll always be my baby,” the dad continues, and then he leans his face toward D., who immediately kisses him on the cheek. “See!” the dad says. It’s such a sweet and wonderful gesture to witness, I can’t help but well up.
I’m often overwhelmed by my love for my students. Now their parents too?
Friday, 9/4 – 10:45 am
Fridays are my real work days. I don’t have advisory, so I spend the whole day in the library, catching up on all the paperwork, unboxing books, organizing. Every once in awhile I step out for some air, but I try to stay focused and productive.
Today, though, when I take a break, I see a former student. T. (barely) graduated in 2006. He was funny and charismatic, short and skinny, with an enormous presence. He caused me a lot of frustration and grief, but plenty of joy and laughter as well. I think about him often, and wonder how he’s doing. When I see him walking down the hall, I shriek with happiness. It’s such a pleasure to see him, taller and wiser, but just as wonderful.
We catch up. He’s adjusting to being a new father. He says he’s the best dad in the world, which is wonderful to hear. He’s working on his music still, about to have a release party on a yacht.
“Wow!” I say.
“You gotta spend money to make money,” he tells me, and I agree. That’s what the tech companies do, right? He’s also working construction, to pay the bills. He tells me he had a rough couple years, but he’s got his head on straight and he’s doing well for himself and his daughter. He talks about the school wide outcomes and how he still refers to them (“Every job interview I’ve been to, I talk about social responsibility, personal responsibility, critical thinking, and communication. It works every time!”).
Again, I feel my eyes welling up. There’s nothing like seeing former students come back and visit. It’s one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.
I tell him goodbye and get back to unloading boxes and writing emails, reminded, once again, of how much I love my job.
Ed. note: Michele Godwin is in her 14th year of teaching high school. She’s back at Leadership High School, where she taught from 2001 to 2008. An English teacher by training and experience, Michele has changed her focus to build a library for Leadership. In addition to her fundraising and library organizing, she is an 11th grade adviser. These are her musings from the past few weeks. Please donate so Michele can buy more books!