I believe in the power of positive reinforcement, especially when it comes to dealing with kids and teenagers.
As a junior in high school, I stumbled into my counselor’s office one fateful afternoon in the fall to talk about college. Ms. Cohn asked me what my plans were, and I quickly responded with, “I don’t know, but I’m thinking about going to community college for two years and then trying my luck at getting into a state school like the University of Florida or FSU.” Her jaw dropped as she reviewed my vital stats: I was president of two honor societies, editor-in-chief of the school paper, and I had one of the highest GPAs in my class as well as decent test scores.
“You’d be a great candidate for a top-tier university like Brown or Northwestern. Why don’t you consider one of those?” she said, dismayed by my low expectations.
I told her I didn’t think I was good enough.
“They would love to have somebody like you, silly” she replied, scribbling down a short list of schools she thought would be the right fit.
Her encouragement that afternoon helped set off a chain reaction that led me to earn a journalism degree from Northwestern, internships at some of the most reputable American newspapers (including the Detroit Free Press and the St. Petersburg Times), it led me to seek out a Master’s in screenwriting from the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Cinema-Television, and next summer, to have my very first film produced.
Now, supplementing my income with a job as a high school grammar teacher, I take every opportunity to remind my students that the sky is the limit. The ages of fifteen, sixteen and seventeen are such critical years in their personal development, so I know how far a pat on the back or even a little praise can go. And it costs me nothing to recognize a student’s potential. On the first day of school, I often ask my class: What do you really want to do with your lives?
Few of my students realize that America’s greatest promise is that anything is possible, no matter who you are or where you come from, racially, financially or even psychologically. All you have to do is put in the hard work.
I’m eternally indebted to all those English teachers who didn’t scoff at my sappy poetry or my error-riddled prose. To the ones who looked deep enough to recognize something special in me. And to that one teacher in the fifth-grade, Mrs. Romano, who foresagely whispered, “You’re a writer!”
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