Those who graduated and those who didn’t

This afternoon, I had an old friend – one I hadn’t seen for a few years – over for lunch.  She wanted to know all about my teaching, my students, our challenges.  She wanted to know what was really happening in my world.

So I showed her.

I have a bulletin board above my couch filled with doodles and pictures from my family as well as several photographs of “my” eight seniors.

In the top corner is “Ned.”  I think he was born an adult.  He speaks clearly and concisely… He’s wearing a three piece suit – one of several that I’ve seen him wear around school.  A very meticulous student, Ned graduated with relative ease.

Directly below Ned is “Dan.”  He insisted on wearing that hat for the picture. Graduation was never really a goal for Dan.  I’m not sure what happened to his parents.  For a time he lived with his grandmother, but she had to be moved to a nursing home, and I heard that often slept on friend’s couches.  When he found out his girlfriend was pregnant, his interest in school ignited, but only for a short time.  It became clear to him that he was too far behind in credits to finish, even if he came back for a fifth year.  He did not return to school after Christmas.  He did send me a picture of his kid a few months ago.  He’s adorable!

Below Dan is “Andy.” Andy wears multiple gold chains and sports a rattail (silly me, I thought they went out of style in the 90’s).  He is a lazy student, but graduated without any serious problems–his teachers love him and find him charming (I love him too, but charming he is not!).

On the opposite corner is “Steve.”  He overcame homelessness, lack of parental support, and two years of failing almost everything to graduate on time with  college credits.  I didn’t put up the other photos of him, the ones where he’s covering his face, or grimacing, or (no joke) running away from the camera. After a lifetime of hearing that he’ll never make it, he became the first in his family to graduate. His auntie and I cried tears of joy together after the graduation ceremony.

Above Steve is a group photo of “David,” “Chris,” “Johnny,” and “Aiden.” It’s a miracle photo because shortly after it was taken, Aiden dropped out and David and Chris stopped coming to school for a few months.

David and Chris are two peas in a pod, the major difference is that Chris has supportive mother in the picture.  David and his siblings and cousins have been raised by their involved but exhausted grandmother.

David really pulled his life together the 2012-2013 school year; however, something major happened over the summer and he missed the first month of school.  Then when he finally did come to class, he was a different person – actually, he’d reverted back to being the I’m-going-to-be-as-obnoxious-as-I-can-because-I-know-that-you-really-think-I’m-worthless-I-think-I’m-worthless-too student he was before… and managed to step it up a few notches.  This lasted from September until the end of the year with only brief pockets of the David I used to know.  He was not able to recover credits lost and did not graduate in May.  I don’t think he made it to summer school, either.

While David wanted to graduate but was convinced he could/would not, Chris always had confidence that he would graduate on time.  Sometimes this confidence was misplaced — like the months he stopped coming to school except once or twice a week for one class period — but he worked hard after school and made up enough of his assignments to pass all of his classes except one (which he took in summer school).  It was hard, but he kept it together (mostly) through his girlfriend’s miscarriage and second pregnancy, his mother losing her job, and having to work full time to support the family himself. Two days before graduation he found out that he could walk.  He ran into my classroom with a huge grin and gave me the biggest bear hug in front of my students.  And of course I cried.

Johnny pretty much raised himself and kind of screwed up his first two years of high school, but not enough that if he did really work at it his junior and senior year he could graduate on time.  And he did really work at it his junior year and part of his senior year.  He was able to walk, even though he was a credit short and would need summer school — but we didn’t know he could until the day before graduation.  He had to wear a former graduate’s robe but it was worth it.  I got a great photo with his girlfriend (who also graduated that day) and eight month old son.

Aiden, a tall scrawny 19 year old, has always had high anxiety when it comes to school–oh so smart and a vocabulary that is in start contrast with his wardrobe and attitude.  I’m pretty sure he started a side-line business right after he turned 18 and school became a strictly social obligation that lasted about 5 minutes a few times a week.  Finally he stopped coming altogether and officially withdrew himself.  He regretted it within a few weeks, but never followed through on re-enrollment.

I haven’t put the graduation pictures up on the bulletin board yet, but as I finish talking with my friend about these seniors – those who graduated and those who didn’t – I was suddenly reminded of conversations I had with my grandfather as we flipped through the pages of his old albums and yearbooks.  He’d say, “Oh yes, there’s Betty Sue she married Dennis and lives in Nebraska.” Or, “there’s Ted, he died last year…. Jenny past away…” etc. It was very succinct, though not heartless–he wasn’t ashamed to let me see him cry over those who died, especially those who succumbed to cancer.  I was speaking of my students in a similar way.  Not that not graduating is the same as dying… or is it, in this job market?

Before graduation, after I found out that David wasn’t going to make it, but before I found out Chris was going to make it, I had a minor meltdown on the phone with my Dad.  I was crushed at the thought of my boys lost in a world that they weren’t equipped for (even with a diploma, they really aren’t equipped, but that’s for another, later post).  I worried that without this diploma they wouldn’t be able to get a decent job so they could support themselves.  But my Dad, in his infinite fatherly wisdom, pointed out that there were several guys he knew from work that had dropped out of school for one reason or another.  They’d wallowed for a few years and then realized they were being dumb and went back and got their G.E.D. Some guys, he said, need a few years go pull their heads out of their butts (one of his favorite phrases). Of course, I worried that my students with learning disabilities and personality disorders would not be able to advocate for themselves in this way, especially after a few years of wallowing.  Dad reminded me that when you want something bad enough, you’ll make it happen.  Then he also told me that I can’t save everyone.

I know Dad’s right about the needing time to mature.  I wish he wasn’t right about everyone not being saved.


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