"Remember that student I had several years ago?" my sister asked. "Well, actually," she clarified, "he wasn't even my student; he had the other Latin teacher."
Important detail: My sister has taught Latin for 100 years or so at the same school. Her Latin program has grown well beyond her classroom, even over to the middle school. All kinds of kids take Latin there--not just the stereotypical brainiacs. Really, there are as many levels of ability in Latin 1 as there are in a regular gym class there. This student was not an academic all-star and had plenty of barriers to his success in life.
She told me his name and reminded me that their relationship began over an altercation. His behavior had caused a major disruption in the classroom next to hers, so much so that she stepped out of her room to address the situation. It was not good. She was furious for a lot of reasons and he made the unfortunate mistake of sassing back instead of remaining quiet and respectful. An administrator came upon the scene and the student got himself a before-school detention the next day.
By the following morning, my sister had (naturally) given it lots of thought; she hoped to meet with the student that day. He seemed like a nice enough kid who had just got carried away in the moment. Plus, she knew his home life wasn't exactly one of privilege. So, it was fortuitous that they encountered one another first thing, quite by accident, in the same place where the argument had occurred. She called him aside, apologized for raising her voice. and admitted ways she thought she could have handled the situation better. Essentially, she allowed herself to be appropriately vulnerable, offered the student a little piece of herself, and made amends.
Over the next three years, they developed a teacher/student friendship of sorts. She'd greet him in the hallway, ask him about his track meets, and encourage him whenever she could. You know, like she did all of her students.
I thought I remembered the story and told her so.
"Anyway," she said, "Did I tell you he came back to see me at Christmas? He's in college now and he stopped by on break. He's doing great. So great!" She laughed a little as she went on. "He told me he'd seen all his other teachers but 'saved the best for last.'"
She told me that he came in, gave her a huge, feet-off-the-ground hug, and told her all about college: his success in track, his scholarship, his leadership responsibilities. She was delighted with his success, but was a little surprised by his enthusiasm at seeing her. She said something like, "Why me?"
Shocked, he said "Ms. Mitchell! There would BE no ME without YOU!"
Whoa. Exaggerate much? I mean, she remembered him, but she couldn't recall anything special she'd done to merit the accolades. He had not even really been her student, for goodness sake. So she asked him to clarify. His response?
"Ms. Mitchell," he said. "You came back. No one ever came back. But you did. You came back."
That's all. And that's everything.
In these difficult times, when human connection has to be more intentional than ever, let's remember to keep going back. It may not seem like anything to you. But to someone else, it could be everything.
One of my all-time favorite stories (at the end of this post) and worth a re-run.
Before I moved to North Myrtle Beach, SC in my junior year of high school, I lived in Goldsboro, NC. Back in the 1980’s when I was a student there, Goldsboro High School lacked diversity. Everyone there looked alike—at least to the few of us who were of the paler variety. Evidently we white folk couldn’t differentiate between the colors of mocha, caramel, and dark chocolate. I guess we couldn’t tell the difference in hair texture, color, and style either. And, perhaps we didn’t notice the zillions of variances in facial features, body structure, height, weight, and so on. We were, after all adolescents, and by nature not that discerning. Anyway, I don’t know the ethnic percentages at GHS, I just remember that when we saw white faces, we waved; they were probably our relatives.
When I lived in Goldsboro, I was blessed: African-American role models were the norm for me. My favorite teachers, Mrs. Delaney and Mrs. Hayes, were strong African-American women; our principal, Mr. Best remains the standard by which I judge all school administrators. He is an enormous man in my memory. “His biceps are the size of our football players’ quadriceps,” we often quipped. But it was his presence, not his size, which looms large in my recall: how he commanded the boisterous hallways by striding silently along, nodding at students, calling them by name. He died young, a loss to the community and to the world.
Goldsboro is an Air Force town; race boundaries blurred early there. So, if I’d get off the bus to find my mother was not yet home, I’d go to the home of the African-American couple the Hightowers. Mr. Hightower had retired from the Air Force and was always home during the day, usually tending the roses in his yard. I spent many afternoons there learning about the delicate flowers he loved so well.
The Hightowers lived on one side of us in a house about the size of ours. On the other side was a house twice as big and parked out front was the son’s BMW. This family was also African-American. Sometimes I caught a ride from school with Darryl, who didn’t have to ride the bus since, well, he had the BMW and all.
Recently, chatting with a friend who coaches girls’ basketball, I got a chuckle when she told me about something her nearly-all-white team experienced. They were playing at a school that must have been something like Goldsboro High School was back in the 80’s because most of the students at the rival school were African-American. My friend’s team was not bothered by the circumstance, played a good game, and headed to the locker room. On the way, they passed a few middle-aged men from the rival school and my friend over heard a bit of their dialog. Observing the pasty skinned opponents, the men shook their heads and commented quietly to each other, “Man, look at those girls. They all look alike!"
"Red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world!"
It’s spring and many of the high school students in my life are planning for prom night. Hear me on this: I’ve got no problem with the prom itself. I do have a problem with the high expectations for the night and also the exorbitant costs (financial and otherwise) associated with it.
Parents, talk to your children about the prom. Really. A lot of bad choices are made on prom night. Your conversations with them can help them avoid life-altering mistakes. It doesn’t matter if your teens don’t want to hear what you have to say. It doesn’t matter if you find it awkward to talk about these things. Do it anyway.
Here are just a few things you might say to your kids.
And finally (brace yourself)
So teens, go to the prom. Have fun. But don’t make it into the high point of your life. It’s just one night.