Why We Do What We Do
It’s graduation season and every year during this time, I think about Fran. Fran was a student in my junior English class many years ago. She was bright and funny and chatty and sweet, but she was also failing. It wasn’t that she wasn’t working hard. She worked really hard to do well in my class. But, she struggled nevertheless.
So, I worked with Fran during lunches and after school but after a while, she stopped showing up. One day, I ran into her in the stairwell near my classroom and asked her why she no longer came for extra help.
She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It’s no use.”
“No use?” I asked. “What do you mean, ‘no use?’”
“I’m never going to get it and what’s more, I’m not going to college anyway.”
“Why not?” I asked gently.
“College is just not for me. Besides, my mother wants me to go to trade school and get a job.” She hung her head.
“Is that what you want?”
She looked up at me then. The pain in her eyes shook me. Then, she lowered her eyes and shrugged.
Honestly, I didn’t know how to help her. Platitudes about the value of a college education seemed pretty empty at the moment. I searched my mind for some bit of wisdom I could share, some way to encourage her. But she seemed resolved.
So I resorted to authority.
“Fran, regardless of whether you go to college or not, you still must pass my class. So, I am expecting you at lunch time tutoring tomorrow. No excuses. It’s mandatory.”
She nodded her head and then turned to walk down the steps. My heart sank. I owed her more, but what could I say that would make a difference?
That night and the next morning, I wracked my brain trying to compose a rousing speech I could give Fran that would transform her perspective. What would Jaimie Escalante say? What would Marva Collins do?
I drew a blank.
So when Fran dutifully showed up at lunch, I just sat down and got to work revising an essay on which she had done poorly. When we finished, I said to her, “You know Fran. You could do well in college if you wanted to.”
She lowered her eyes.
“You’re getting so much better at writing,” I continued. “If we keep working at it, I think you’ll do just find. Plus, you’ll love college. You’re curious and you love to learn. You would thrive in a college classroom.”
She didn’t say anything and after a few moments, I the bell rang and she silently took her books and went to class.
I felt awful. I’d failed to inspire her. I blamed my speech. If only I could be as eloquent as some of the movie teachers I’d seen, then maybe Fran would go to college.
The rest of the semester I constantly beat myself up. No matter what I said, she would silently bear my inspiring speeches without comment. I wasn’t getting through to her at all.
Sometimes I would ask myself, why does she have to go to college? Afterall, college isn’t some sort of panacea and it certainly doesn’t serve everyone, so why am I insisting that she go to college?
Then I would watch her struggle through an essay or see how animated she was during a class discussion, and I would realize anew that it wasn’t so much that I wanted her to go to college. It was that I wanted her to have the option. She thought she only had one option – trade school. It didn’t matter to me so much which option she chose, I just wanted to make sure that she knew she had a choice.
Once I realized that, I changed my approach. Instead of insisting that she consider college, I started helping her picture what college would look like her. That essay she just got a B on? It was just like the type of essay she would be required to write in freshman composition. That animated discussion we just had about Macbeth reminds me of a similar one I had in a graduate course once. That comment she just made? She sounded just like a college student.
The next year, I didn’t see Fran much. From time to time I would check on her with her senior English teachers and was gratified to know that she was doing well. I spotted her a few times in the halls and smiled. Once or twice she came by to get help on a paper she was working on for her other classes. I didn’t push college. I just listened to her plans and prayed.
Then, at graduation, I watched proudly as she marched across the stage diploma in hand. After the ceremony I stuck around for a bit to congratulate a few students and meet their families. I looked for Fran but never found her in the crowd. Finally, I started towards my car.
I turned to see Fran running toward me.
I waited for her to reach me and hugged her warmly.
She started crying and clung to me fiercely. Concerned, I asked, “Fran, honey, what’s wrong.”
She tried to talk but kept sobbing. I waited growing more and more alarmed. Finally, she took a deep breath.
“I just wanted to… to… thank….you…for” she hiccupped and started crying again.
I started digging in my purse and handed her a tissue.
She blew her nose loudly and smiled sheepishly.
“I just wanted to thank you for believing in me.”
I hugged her. “Of course I believe in you.”
She pulled back and looked at me seriously. “You were the only one who did.”
I didn’t know what to say so I just stood there.
“I wanted so badly to go to college,” she continued. “But I didn’t think I could. My mother told me to just get a job after high school and learn a trade. No one told me that I could even go to college. But you started going on and on and on and on about college all the time,” she laughed and I laughed with her. Then she got serious again.
“I’m going to do it,” she nodded solemnly. “I’m going to college.”
I don’t know if I have ever been more proud of a student than I was of Fran at that moment. Even now, I get goosebumps when I tell that story. And it reminds me of why we do what we do. Schools to me should be places where students discover that they have options. Schools should be a place where students get to expand their options. It’s not just about college. I want them to have the option to do whatever they want to do with their lives.
That’s the difference that we get to make for our students. That is why we’re here.
I want to hear your stories of your students. Would you inspire us all by sharing them in the comments section below?