Learning As Leadership

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 03 2011

The Reason

This is going to sound a lot like a cliche teacher story.

If you saw him walking down the street, you would never guess he was 13. He looks more like 30, with more tattoos than Kat Von D. He’s got a mean look on his face, but smiles and laughs so frequently that you wouldn’t be afraid of him unless you got in his way.

He’s one of the smartest kids. You can tell from the calculating twinkle in his mischievous eyes. He’s also one of the “bad kids”. He’s on the “Worst 15 Kids” list that our school keeps, and not once since school started three weeks ago have I been able to work my magic and get him to even write his name on a piece of paper.

On the second day of school he was fighting another kid in my classroom. I told him to leave my room and go calm down and refocus in the other Ms. W’s room, and he refused. I called security, who came up and refused to remove the student. They said I had to “deal with it on my own”. I got up as close to his face as I could with my face and told him to stand in the back of the room and not move or make any noise. “I don’t care if a rat comes up and bites you. Do. Not. Say. Anything.” He actually looked scared. “Yes, Ma’am.” And he did not say a word.

We’ve had a couple of moments where I thought we connected and things would turn around, but then 10 minutes later I would see him wandering the halls and tell him to go to class and his response would be, “Man, naw, f**k these teachers, this is why no one be wanting to do your work.”

As a bright-eyed, idealistic new teacher, I am subject to frequent flights of fantasy where I picture the possibilities for my students. No, seriously. I can usually get a feel for what they will be when they grow up and all the amazing opportunities they will have.

When I think about this student, I wonder if he will be a statistic. In our school district, that chance is more than 50% that he will not graduate high school on time. And since he is a male, that chance is even greater.

He certainly carries himself like he is going to drop out. It almost seems like he already has it on his agenda. I know it doesn’t have to be that way. Does he?

After watching him fall asleep through my lesson for the 15th time in 15 days, and then watching him disrupt my 30 other students who were silently working through my weekly quiz, I had had enough. I had to try something new.

“COME HERE.” He didn’t even look up.

“(NAME OF STUDENT), COME HERE.” He glanced up and totally ignored me.

“THANK YOU.” It’s a reverse psychology thing I’ve been trying. If a student doesn’t do what I ask them to do, I thank them for doing it. 9 times out of 10 it makes them do it. This may be an old teacher trick, but I discovered it on my own without ever reading it in a book.

He lifted himself out of the desk, which looked tiny compared to him, and sauntered over, pants sagging dangerously low, an F-you to our strict dress code.

“SIT DOWN.” I sat down in a chair in the corner of the room and put a chair inches from my chair. He paced around. When he saw I wasn’t backing down, he dropped himself into the chair. He wouldn’t look at me. He looked like a cross between a guilty puppy who knows they did something bad, and a defiant, strong-willed teenager.

“Okay, dude, look. We need to talk. We need to be real. Can we please have a real talk?” He didn’t look at me. He just gave a silent laugh and kept his eyes glued to the floor.

“What, you don’t want to talk to me? You don’t think I get you?” Eyes on the floor. Another silent laugh.

“You know what? I don’t get you.” Eyes glance at me quickly, then back down.

“And I never will. Even if you told me what it’s like to be you, I would still never truly know what it’s like to be you.” Eyes on me now.

“But I still care about you. Do you believe that I care about you?” Eyes back down on the floor. A whisper of “yes” emerged from his lips.

“What do you think you’re going to be when you grow up?” This is my go-to question for every situation with a child.

“Do you mean what do I want to be, or what do I think I’m actually going to be?” His eyes locked on my eyes.


“I can’t tell you what I want to be.” Eyes back on the floor.

“Yes you can. This is a REAL conversation, remember?”

“Okay. I want to be an ‘entrepreneur’.” He gave a sly, crooked smile, and his eyes returned to the floor.

“Okay. And what do you think you are actually going to be?” My heart was pounding in my chest. We were both oblivious to the mass chaos that was ensuing in my room.

“Nothing.” We both understood what this meant. He said it quietly, with his eyes on the ground, and in a sad way.

“Why do you think you will be ‘nothing’? Do you know anyone who has finished school?” He told me he wasn’t sure. He told me he just couldn’t act right in school.

I wanted to ask him another question, but I was afraid it would sound like I was being disrespectful or making assumptions. But I reminded myself that it was a real conversation, so I took a risk.

“When are you planning on dropping out?”

“Soon. This year.” He didn’t blink or miss a beat.

I was so incredibly humbled by his honesty. I was in awe of his wisdom and clarity about his future, even though it was sad. He knew the choices that he was making would lead him to a place he didn’t want to be. In his 13-year-old world, his fate was already sealed.

I talked with him for a long time about how even if it feels like it’s too late that it’s not too late to turn things around. I told him that most people never go after their dreams simply because they area afraid of how much work it is going to be. I told him that it’s up to HIM to make a change, and that making only a few small changes would turn his entire life around. I also told him that he didn’t have to give up himself or who he was to do well in school.

“You can still be you. You can still be cool. You can still do you. I’m not asking you to be somebody you aren’t. I’m not trying to tell you to change your dreams. I’m not trying to tell you to change who you are. I’m not trying to tell you what to want out of life.” He nodded and glanced up at me quickly when I said that.

There was a long pause. This was the scary part.

“How is your reading?” Silence lasted an eternity. He shook his head, which was down so I couldn’t see his face.

“What does that mean?”

“Not good. I can’t read,” he muttered. Adrenaline shot through my veins. I just wanted to hug this kid. So brave and honest and REAL!!!

“Well, do you think that’s why school has been such a struggle for you?!” Shrug. Nods yes. Finally puts his eyes on mine and keeps them there.

“Well, dude, let’s change that. Make a decision right here and right now that THIS IS GOING TO BE YOUR YEAR. This is the year you change that. Don’t put it off. Let’s do it. Is it going to be hard? Hell yes. But you can do it. If you commit to two days a week of extra tutoring with me, it will literally change your whole life. Learning to read isn’t going to get any easier as you get older. Let’s make this your year!” He nodded.

I told him that EVERY DECISION MATTERS. Even the little decisions. We make hundreds of choices a day, and they all impact us. I gave him some examples and asked him about some of the small decisions he was making that were hurting his education and asked him how hard it would be to change them. We had a good discussion.

I told him to think about it over the long weekend and give me an answer on Tuesday when we come back to school.

At the end of the day, he appeared in my doorway.

“Hey, Ms. W., can I get an after-school tutoring form for my mom to sign?”


On his way out my door, another teacher stopped him and hassled him for not being where he was supposed to be.

“Why are you up here????”

“Because. It was a choice I made.”

“Well choose to get your butt on that school bus, young man!” His eyes locked with mine and he disappeared from the doorway.

Will he actually come to tutoring? I don’t know. This isn’t the first time I’ve had one of these cliche, teachable moments with a student, only to have them slip back into old thinking and never come to tutoring.

But you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m gonna be there Tuesday to find out. He is the reason.

5 Responses

  1. G

    So good….so incredibly good. I am keeping my fingers crossed for him…and for you…:)

  2. This is amazing.

  3. omg, please update. did he come?

  4. Renee

    Time for an update please!

  5. Update coming soon… I promise. Thanks for reading, guys.

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About this Blog

a Teach For America teacher’s blog

St. Louis
Middle School

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