Being a teacher is kind of like being a time traveler.
So much of what you do and say changes those around you, and the effects can shoot off into the distant horizon far beyond your line of sight.
I sometimes wonder what happened to certain students, if they continued to become the people they wanted to be or if time and circumstance caught up to them.
As a public school teacher with more than two decades experience, sometimes the years sneak up on me.
Students whom I remember as little children in middle school desks have grown into adults since they left.
Not that I usually get to see their grown-up faces. Often times their lives never intersect with mine again and I never know what become of them.
But occasionally an invitation, a chance encounter or an article in the local news gives a glimpse of who they are or where they end up.
For example, a few months ago I was invited to a ceremony where one of my former students was being awarded the rank of Eagle Scout. He was getting ready to graduate high school now, and in the picture on the invitation he looked about ready to burst out of his scouting uniform – but he had the same smile, the same glimmer of mischief in the eye.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I should attend – if after four years the student – let’s call him Doug – really wanted me to be there. But then he stopped by my classroom after school one day. He must have remembered that I’d still be there grading papers, rewriting lessons, making myself available if needed.
“Are you going to come to the ceremony, Mr. Singer?” he asked in a way that left no doubt how important this was to him.
I remembered Doug in class. He was always such a prankster. He was the first person to crack a joke – even reciting some classic but inappropriate standup routines as if they were his own. I’d shared with him some old Doctor Demento tapes and we’d had a few laughs.
“I asked Mr. Kimble to come, too, but he said he was busy. He’s dead to me now,” he said with a smirk.
It was a joke, but it struck me hard. Did it still matter to me whether I disappointed this child? The answer came back immediately – it still did.
So I ventured out of the house on the weekend dressed as my weekday self. I sat through the speeches and solemn rites. I listened to his speech and finally understood why he wanted me there.
He wanted me to see how far he’d come – that as dedicated to humor and jollity as he was, Doug could be serious as stone when need be. He had led his fellow scouts in refurbishing a local veterans memorial and showed himself to be a real leader. If he wanted the world to laugh, it was only in service of making it a better place.
Several weeks later I found myself in a similar situation with another former student.
Unlike the scenario with Doug, I wasn’t expecting anything. In fact, it took me a few moments to even recognize the boy through the man he had become.
I was at a local movie theater with a section of my school’s Dungeons and Dragons club. I started the extracurricular club and am lead sponsor. During the week, we get together and play the tabletop role playing game. I try to have them both organize the adventures and play through them. Some kids function as Dungeon Masters and others have characters like warriors, wizards, elves, orcs and dragon-borns.
On this weekend, one of our local families had paid for the group to see the “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” movie. I was herding the kids together in front of the movie poster to take a picture of the event when this full-grown man walks up to me and says, “Hey! Mr. Singer!”
I squinted at him, but he had a huge grin on his face and seemed happy to see me. Then I noticed that one of my club members was at his waist pulling on his sleeve asking for some popcorn.
We shook hands and he introduced himself as Jamal’s big brother. Then he asked if his brother was good in class or bad like he had been.
That’s when it came together. I saw through the adult and to the kid he had been – a kid pretty similar to his brother Jamal.
It must have been 10 years ago. He had been a diminutive boy in a class of kids who had hit puberty a few months before him. He had been shy and often got picked on. He tried hard on his assignments – at least the ones he turned in.
The adult version chatted with me as his brother went to the concessions stand with the money he had given him. Though he lived a few neighborhoods away these days, he tried his best to come back to the district to look out for his brother.
He didn’t go into many details, but it was obvious he had gone through a lot in the intervening years. He had a limp and smelled of musty pine trees. But he was clearly there for Jamal when no one else was.
Before the movie, there was a preview for a documentary about Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani education advocate and winner of the Noble Peace Prize. Several students, including Jamal, turned to me in my corner in the back and chanted her name because we had talked about her in class.
Jamal’s big brother was still smiling, proud that his little brother knew who this brave woman is before the film had explained it.
If you saw him on the street, you might not think him a success story. He seemed an average person just doing what he could to get by. But I knew (at least some) of the journey he had taken to get there. I knew how hard won his peace was. And I recognized that smile still on his face – so rare when he had been in class but now a permanent feature. I think that is success, too.
But the last former student I want to talk about is Marquis.
He was in one of my first classes. I remember him as a gawky middle schooler with string bean arms and legs below a sullen face.
When I started, if there was one student sent to the office that day – it was him. If there was one kid shouting out a swear word or picking a fight, it was Marquis. This was an angry kid who demanded attention – positive, negative, it didn’t matter.
I used to make badly behaved students stay 15 minutes after school for detention. It’s not something I do so much these days but I was a new teacher then – strict and consumed with reciprocal justice. In fact, students had to WORK during my detentions. No sleeping or even doing homework. They had to copy definitions out of the dictionary for the full time. If they slacked off, I added more time. Some days a 15-minute detention could last an hour, because if I reported that they hadn’t satisfied me, the principal would keep them on the weekend or in a longer detention during the week with an administrator.
I remember Marquis whining and complaining as he copied definitions. He’d spend more time whining than working – but eventually he learned.
Eventually he’d come in, sit up straight in his seat and copy those definitions from start to finish like a machine. He did it so well, his scores on my vocabulary quizzes started to improve. But he still ended up getting detentions – at least twice a week.
One day he finished the definitions and I told him he could go. “Can I stay?” he said.
“Can I stay and copy definitions a little longer?”
I almost started to cry – right then and there.
So THAT’S why he always got detentions. He wanted somewhere to go after school. He wanted someone to talk to, someplace safe to wait so he could walk home unmolested by the other kids.
He never got detention again because I told him he could stay with me any day he wanted after school for as long as he wanted. And he did. Sometimes we’d talk. Sometimes he’d do work. It didn’t matter, but his behavior in my class improved.
At the end of the year, when he passed English Language Arts – one of very few classes he managed to get a C or better in that year and the first time he had passed ELA in middle school – I told him how proud I was of him. And he smiled the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.
He continued building on that success, too. He went up to the high school and got better and better grades. He kept out of trouble and became one of those kids everyone seems to know and most people seem to like. He was the kind of kid that every teacher had an anecdote about.
I hadn’t thought about him in some time, but then an item appeared in the local news.
Drive-by Shooting Kills Area Man. It was Marquis.
He had just been walking along the street helping some younger kids to the basketball courts. By all accounts he has straightened up his life, got a college degree and was just starting on a career as a social worker in the same community where he grew up.
It was a shock.
I turned to my files and I saw I still had a folder with his name on it – back when I used to collect such things. Inside were a few old write ups, and pages and pages of vocabulary words in his childish handwriting.
We never know what will happen to the kids in our classrooms.
We never know who will be successful, who will be happy, who will live fulfilling lives.
But we try – we try SO HARD – to give our kids everything we can.
Doug had a straight path, and so far he’s walked it without incident.
Jamal’s brother had a lot of bumps on the road, but he’s still walking it.
And poor Marquis. He walked as far as he could. I wish we could have made for him an easier road – and a longer one.
“Count no man happy until the end is known,” wrote the ancient Greek story-teller Herodotus.
Known as the father of history, he meant that you never know if someone is truly happy until their death, because even a seemingly happy person today could have a tragedy befall them tomorrow taking away everything that made them happy.
I think about that sometimes when considering the fate of my former students.
After more than two decades in the classroom, it seems to me that the quality of the journey is more important than whether it may all disappear tomorrow.
After all, knowing the fate of any of our students wouldn’t really change what we do for them. We’re teachers – will give them our all no matter what.
Because that’s the road we’ve chosen to walk.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!