I Believe No Child should be Left Feeling Worthless

Walter - Mullica Hill, New Jersey
Entered on October 9, 2008

As soon as I signed in for Back to School Night, one parent from last year cornered me in the office. “You did what no other teacher has ever done,” he told me, and the entire high school office. “I don’t know how you did it, but you turned my boy’s life around. Thank you so much.”

I shook his hand and said thank you. But all I did was to encourage his son to believe in himself. After all, no child should leave school feeling worthless – that’s what I believe.

And that’s part of my English lesson plan everyday – to get my students to be excited about life and the limitless opportunities. Each student should feel like the most important student in the class. After all, what’s the alternative? A life made stale because of unrealized dreams and underutilized potential?

What I did with his son Aaron is something I try to do with every student: on the first day of school, I assign an essay: tell me what you are. Aaron wrote an essay called “Always a Gamer.” The essay had potential, even if it was two days late, but so are some of my bills, and I encouraged Aaron to write game reviews for the school newspaper. And since I was the advisor, I had some clout with the editors.

And it worked. Now Aaron found worth as a game reviewer, writing a review for each edition with his picture. Now the whole school knew him. His writing improved. His grade in English improved. And he got excited about school, and, according to his father, life.

It’s not like I fill students with false platitudes. Like, “You’re all just so perfect!” But I do want them to look into the mirror – and like whom they see, and if they don’t like the reflection, then do something meaningful about it. The point is that too many students leave school feeling depressed and dispirited because they’re merely average: no award, no honor roll, and no homecoming queen.

But a marvelous life can be had – regardless of grades and social prestige.

Sure, the point of school is to get a well-rounded education. But education occurs every second of the day – and if those seconds are sold to the devil of quiet desperation, then all is lost.

Last year I saw this land of the lost during Behavior Mod: in-school suspension, but with an Orwellian moniker. The students mostly sit with their head down, angry and valueless. Sometimes I would offer my ten minute lecture. But what can I do?

One time I told a repeat offender to read Newsweek’s coverage of Barack Obama. Surprisingly, he sat on the radiator and read for ten minutes. But then an administrator arrived and told him to sit in his seat. Perhaps this administrator could have asked: “So what are you reading?” (That is the point of school, right? Reading and thinking.)

At least it would have provided a catalyst, and the student would have felt empowered, worthy, maybe for the first time. But instead the boy threw Newsweek down, slumped back in his chair, and put his head down, like it’s always been down.

I wanted to say, “I’m sorry, but you still have worth. I believe that.” But I didn’t. And so I’m sorry that his folks won’t be shaking my hand anytime soon.