Natalie's story made me think of how we're more comfortable tearing down than building up, how we expect parents to make our lives easier, and how we so readily wave the superhero cape but don't often put it on and get to work. After all, we're not superheroes. We can't fly. We would be fools to believe we could.
If you choose to teach needy students, you will at some point get frustrated that their parents aren't doing a better job. It is hard - no one but a teacher knows how hard - to get a child to value his education when nothing else in his world is willing to work toward its success.
Me: "James, I need you here every day. You are so smart. You can have the world. I can help you get there, but you have to be here."
James: "I know. I'll try. Don't worry Ms. B."
A week later, after not seeing James.
Me: "James. You've got to be here. I'm here. At lunch, at break, I'm here. Come to class. We're reading that book you wanted."
James: "I will. I'm serious. I want to go to college. I'll be here. Don't worry, Ms. B."
And so forth, until the year plays out and I have to decide whether James deserves a D (and a future) because he's really smart and wonderful or an F because he didn't do any work.
I do not believe that people who vote on educational issues really understand that some teachers put their heart and soul into their students, and how when their students fail, it rips our hearts out. They see our summers, and the union's stance. I see James.
My neighbors see a murderer - a murderer they expected, based on the newspaper comments, because he is an African American male. I see James, a bright-eyed kid with parents who wanted the world for him but who were unable to deliver. I see a kid who didn't come to class despite the fact I built my whole curriculum to appeal to him.
Obviously, his name wasn't James. It was something else, but he's real, and I'm not the only teacher who has loved - still loves- a child now facing a 30-year sentence for murder. He loves me too. He writes me from jail - letters that would meet standard on our state assessment. A joy that aches.
Did you know that you can't mail books to an inmate, but you can if they're mailed by Amazon or Barnes and Noble? I know that now. I wonder if he recognizes theme, and purpose. I wonder if he has the confidence to open the thing up and start, even though the print is small and the pages many.
So here's my response to Ms. Munro - What would you want for these kids if they were your children? What if your child was a tenth grader starting to make bad choices, and you were absolutely unable to change his path?
I know what I would do. I would hope to God there was some teacher who would show my child the way. I would hope there was someone, who probably owned a house and had a not-too-used Saturn station wagon, who thought reading was easy and college a possibility, I would hope that person, that guide, would pick my child up and save his life. I would hope that someone would do for my child what I was unable to do.
I didn't save James. His parents may have hoped, but I failed. I tried, but on that morning, hyped up on drugs, when he shot a man for $22, he didn't stop to think, "Ms. B used Othello to teach me: think before you act." He didn't think that. I can't begin to imagine what he thought. I didn't save him. But I didn't badmouth him, either. I put on my cape, took a flying leap, and crashed. It hurt, but I'd rather crash than just complain.
And the picture? Yes. That's James. And because I know him I can tell you that the look on his face is saying, "I know what you're thinking but I'm not like that. That guy who killed the man. That's not really who I am. I'm the guy who was absolutely amazing reading the part of Othello."