Letters of February, more surprises, and a soapbox

January kicked off my goal of writing one letter a week, where I chose to write to four former students, and was surprised when two of them wrote me back immediately.

When I received two letters back, I thought that was pretty cool. They took the time and effort when I didn’t even prompt them to write back. Even more surprising was that both students separately chose to come back and visit me last week. They were excited to fill me in on everything they have been up to, and look around the classroom to point out all the changes.

Then on Friday, I received an email to let me know that another January letter kid had put his letter to me in the mail and I will be receiving it soon. Had I have not written those letters, certainly none of these things would have happened.

It’s now the beginning of March and I am reminded how much influence educators can have on their students, even when they have left the very school you once knew each other in. As far as I know, no standardized test can measure that kind of impact, and it is that very kind of impact that is leaking away with so much focus on high staking testing.

Hrrrmmmmm….

But wait – who did that fourth letter of February go to? Also a former student, but sadly the letter was sent to him at the county jail. I secretly keep tabs on many of my more “troubled” students, and searching names on the inmate database is something I do semi-regularly. A couple weeks ago, I had a hit.

He was a bright, funny, and super energetic kid, but emotional and impulsive. His parents were not in the picture (drugs) and his grandparents seemed beleaguered and burdened with his presence. I admit that as his teacher, he exhausted me to no end, but nonetheless I contributed much of my time (even after he was not my student) in an attempt to thwart the proverbial high school drop out. Well – in one way that was thwarted; he dropped out in 8th grade instead. The day he told me he was running away and wouldn’t be coming back, I shoved $20 in his hand and said, “Don’t buy drugs.”

Of course I reported it to all concerned parties, but all I received were a lot of shrugs and eye rolls. I kept thinking that somehow someone would swoop in and save the day…that’s what happens in the movies, right?

Instead, he dropped off the face of the earth for a time. Two years later, he resurfaced and visited me after school. He was much taller, and bonier, and excitedly told me that he was riding the rails between Seattle and San Francisco, and was just popping in to see me. Though it was flattering, I felt the failure of my inadequacy as a teacher.

I’m not sure what I could have done differently, but I can tell you that I watched him spend an inordinate amount of time standing outside his classroom “timed out” or being suspended in his 7th & 8th grade years. Teachers said things like, “It’s not fair to the other 26 kids!” And I agree; I’ve probably said it myself. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that when a kid who is just looking to belong gets kicked out over and over, it’s not setting them up for success.

Hopefully, he gets my letter and realizes that he’s got a friend.

And that, folks, is my soapbox for the day.

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