Preface

It was the middle of August and I had come to Lincoln Elementary School to set up my fifth-grade classroom. The heat and humidity of the Madison summer was oppressive, and I went to open the windows for some relief. Staring back at me from the other side was this big smiling face, barely reaching over the window frame. I took one look and recognized the boy who was always cheerful and happy whenever I saw him in the school hallways. He introduced himself as William, and I realized that he was on my class list. I told him that I had never seen him around school without a smile on his face and I had hoped to have him in my class someday. Now my wish had come true. He just beamed with pride. I invited him in and gave him a tour of his new classroom. This began my friendship with a young man who in spite of everything life threw at him always came through smiling, happy and successful. William was the picture of resiliency; a boy who reached out to whoever could help him. If I could bottle William and affix him to every at-risk student, we would never see failure in our schools.

I had William both as a fifth- and a seventh-grader. In fact, we moved on to middle school together. If William needed help with schoolwork or home life, he always found the right person for assistance. He instantly became friends with those classroom teachers who responded to him, and every social worker in every school he attended got to know him personally. What was remarkable about this young man was his ability to bring joy to every situation. He had the proverbial background of being born fatherless and into poverty. His mother was emotionally unstable and abusive. He took care of his siblings, calmed his mother, and clung to the one stable relative in his life, his elderly grandfather. William surely saw the worst of life, but he faced it all with equanimity. When life got him down—and there were many times when I saw him overwhelmed—he would turn to one of us on staff and we would support him; his smile would soon return.

Since William attended Lincoln Elementary School in Madison, he was eligible for a small scholarship for college that the teachers at Lincoln had set up. This stipend was available to all graduates of the school who had succeeded and wanted to go on with their education. The year William graduated from high school, he received the money to attend our local community college. On the night of the awards ceremony, two other teachers and I took him out for dinner and gave him our own special scholarship with some extra money. It was a big night for William, but when one of the teachers arrived at his home to pick him up for dinner, his mother became hysterical and claimed that she deserved the money and the award. The teacher was afraid she would become abusive and quickly walked William to the car. I was told that he just looked back, said good-bye to his mother, smiled, and then calmly explained, “That was my mother” and there was nothing to worry about. We, however, were worried that his mother would come to the ceremony and ruin it for William; at least, everyone but William was concerned about that.

As expected, William’s mother came, and just when he was presented with the award, she leaped from the bleachers and came down onto the floor, screaming, “That’s my boy, that’s my boy. I did it for him. I made him!” Only William knew what to do. He hugged his mother and smiled. Here was a lesson in gallantry and composure.

William had every reason to claim society had done him in. He had every reason to become a hostile, angry, defeated young man. What was it that made him reach out to others and look at life in such a confident, optimistic way, focusing only on the good things rather than the bad? I wish I knew the answer. What I do know is that sharing a day with William made teaching a joy.

Over the years I have met some remarkable young people, students who despite every adversity somehow managed to overcome it all. Frail and limping, Manny entered my room as a new transfer student. He had come from Louisiana and was new to Cherokee Middle School and Madison, Wisconsin. An elderly aunt had enrolled him, and the files from his previous school had not yet arrived. Manny was withdrawn and sad looking. When we finally read his file, we learned about his unfortunate history. His father was in prison for killing his mother. And if that wasn’t enough for any child to overcome, Manny also had sickle-cell anemia. He spent a good deal of time in the hospital. We needed to check him every morning to see if there were signs of illness. The school nurse, his special education teacher, and I became very close to Manny. Thirteen-year-old Manny had to start every day with a hug from each of us, and it didn’t matter one bit to him if anyone saw this display of affection; in fact, a few other boys began hugging us, too. Manny needed a mother’s warmth, and he got it from three women at school. We visited him in the hospital and helped him keep up with schoolwork. Pretty soon the whole staff had adopted Manny.

Here again was a young person facing almost insurmountable odds displaying a spirit and love of life that never left him. You never heard a complaint from Manny and you never saw him grimace in pain, though his illness must have caused him a lot of discomfort. Manny always exuded a stoic yet cheerful view of life. It’s hard to believe that I could have taught him as much as he taught me.

Now we come to Isabel. Born to wealth, social status, beauty and intelligence, Isabel was intolerant of all injustices shown to her fellow students. She was the first one to defend gays and lesbians, come to the rescue of students of color, tutor special needs children, and generally hound the harassers unfortunately common in middle school. She reminded me of those incredible women in history whose deep personal beliefs provided them with so much dignity and self-assurance that even those around them seemed to glow in their brilliance. We need all kinds of people in this world we live in, but the Isabels are crucial to the survival of humanity.

You would think Isabel should have been the most popular student in the school. Teachers and students should have loved her. She was a talented writer and her words flowed naturally, displaying her fierce beliefs in the principles of moral rightness and equity. She studied, she got good grades, she dressed well, and, she was pretty. She should have had lots of girl friends and drooling adolescent boys surrounding her. But Isabel, like William and Manny, had more than her fair share of pain.

Isabel’s parents were divorcing and constantly fighting, each accusing the other of instability and poor parenting. A parent conference with the both of them resembled the War of the Roses, with Isabel sitting between them in abject misery. Isabel felt she had to be perfect to make up for the imperfections of her parents. She thought that if she did everything right, she could remove one reason for the unrelenting battles between her mom and dad.

In class Isabel took on teachers she felt were unfair. She was not accepted by the more conventional girls, who knew the only way to belong was to be like everybody else. The boys were afraid of Isabel’s intelligence, and she treated them like the awkward pubescents they actually were. The result was that a potential Mother Theresa/ Rosa Parks was actually turning into a Virginia Wolf/Sylvia Plath potential suicide.

I first noticed Isabel’s arms on an unusually warm March day. I was walking past her desk when our eyes met and I saw in them an urgent plea for help. I was trying to figure out the silent message in them when I looked down and saw what Isabel was no longer hiding. Her arms were grafittied with razor-embedded slash marks, some so fresh they were still bleeding. I later learned that Isabel had calls for help running up and down her entire body. She entered a hospital to receive intense therapy, and slowly her inner strengths prevailed.

It seemed to me that Tess was your typical adolescent student one day and a raging, angry, rebelling youngster the next. The metamorphosis occurred just that quickly. She managed to keep it somewhat together in seventh grade, declined in eighth grade, and fell completely apart in ninth. Tess entered that dark world of drugs and sexual promiscuity, eventually attending an alternative high school but abandoning it for the sordid and seamy subculture that some teens rush uncontrollably into and cannot be kept from regardless of any intervention. Her parents and teachers worked unrelentingly to help her but we all finally realized that it was Tess who had to fight back. Three children later she quit drugs, put up the last baby for adoption, and tried to do her best with the other two. I ran into Tess in my local supermarket, which was strangely becoming a class reunion for a lot of my students and me. She was working the cash register and seemed to be having a difficult time, although she remained gracious and was clearly trying to please. Since she was in training and somewhat slow at what she was doing, we were able to chat a little. Others, behind me in quite a long line at this point, heard the nature of the conversation and quickly proved my belief that Madison, Wisconsin people can be wonderfully patient and understanding. Tess gave me a quick biographical tour of recent years and told me her children were the most important things in her life. We discussed the fact that she was on her own and it was going to be difficult. I left and told her to call me and that we could talk again.

More often than not the youngsters in front of me showed an incredible desire to learn. Some nights I worked on curriculum until 3 A.M. I would bring it in the next day and watch it be instantly inhaled by insatiable learners who would ask for more. A future in college was unquestioningly accepted by them and their parents. The adults in their lives supported their childrens’ schools and my classroom. They made my life in education a joy.

Today William is a bus driver in a midwestern city, Manny is still persevering through high school, and Isabel is no doubt somewhere on her already liberal college campus raising even more awareness for an important cause. Tess is plugging away at a new life, and I hope she will make it.

I remember all my students who passed through adolescence with humor as well as awkwardness, intellect as well as giddiness, strength along with confusion, laughter, tears and pain, each emotion and action rapidly changing not only from day to day but from moment to moment, thus making the average teacher’s day a monument to the mercurial delights and volatile despair of today’s young people. Every single one of my students imbued in me a wonder and fascination for all young people. Children have a gift for life, and to work in the presence of such vitality and impregnability is, as my students would say, awesome.

This then is the pleasure and joy of a profession that can be simultaneously exhilarating, exhausting, emotionally draining, yet consummately fulfilling.