Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Joy and Triumph on Graduation Day

One of the great benefits of teaching is seeing your kids graduate, whether it be from kindergarten, middle school, high school or college.  Having taught high school students the past few years, their respective graduations have come rather quickly: I've actually attended three in the past month.  Last week, I returned to Boston to see a group of my former students graduate.
I wasn't sure how I would be received.  I certainly had reason to be positive; after all, one of my students had sent me a text specifically to ask if I was coming.  When I said I would be there, she responded: "You made my f-ing life!"  Of course, she didn't censor it like that, giving me an early reminder of how much I missed my Boston students.  Many of them never had trouble expressing themselves in the most direct way possible, a byproduct of the emotional and mental toughness required to survive under challenging circumstances.

My appearance was a surprise to many, including my former colleagues, who greeted me warmly.  The students who had arrived early to help set up the auditorium at Bunker Hill Community College for the ceremony seemed grateful and happy that I had come.  Both students and staff alike seemed genuinely shocked that I had traveled from south Texas to Boston for no other reason than to witness this event and try to reconnect with my former students.  It seemed like a no-brainer to me.

As everyone began to file in for the ceremony, I was excited to talk with many of my kids.  I assured those who would be graduating next year that I would return for their ceremony, including the student who had initially contacted me.  Although she could have graduated this year under the school's unique credit system, she would have only been able to attend a two-year college.  Since that wasn't her goal, she decided to put off graduation until next year.  [Note: If this sounds like a radically different system than any you've heard of, that's because it is.  I'm happy to explain more if anyone is interested.]

She made sure to tell me that, "I still take the bus route you showed me every day," bringing me back to the time when she nearly lost her credits due to truancy.  She would have been set back another year at least, possibly not even finished high school, had she not taken my advice so she could get to school on time every day. 

Many students asked, "Mistah, where's your mohawk?"  While my guitar playing antics seemed to be the thing my former students graduating in the RGV recalled vividly, in Boston my mohawk experiment is clearly what I'll be remembered for most.  "You really helped a lot of students last year," another former student told me.  She and many others (including a few of the graduates) were eager to tell me how much better they had done in math this past year, which made me happy.

The ceremony itself was as powerful and emotional as any I have attended.  Several students spoke, each one recalling the massive obstacles they had overcome to get to that stage.  These were the kinds of things that I'm not sure I could have handled myself.  Almost all had been told that they would never graduate and might as  well get their GED or just drop out completely.  They were all sure to answer their past critics: I proved you wrong.  The joy, the tears and overwhelmingly positive electricity in the room was just amazing.

Perhaps it sounds cliche, but this was the kind of event that reminds me why I do what I do.  The twenty survivors on that stage were the embodiment of everything I've tried to help make possible over the years.  As with all of my former students, it is I who should be thanking them.  I learned more about myself, this profession, and the human spirit than I ever could have learned otherwise.  To all of my kids out there: thank you!