I watched a video on YouTube today - I've watched it five times and am still hitting replay - the URL is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_xFNa7YKDw -- it is the most inspiring performance I've ever heard. I just wish I could download the audio to my iPod.
Here is this dowdy, older, graying woman - unemployed 47, and never been kissed -- everyone was judging her by her appearance, expecting little. She began to sing and the audience [and the judges] were on their feet, applauding. How unbelievable that someone so unassuming could take that song - I Dreamed a Dream - and knock everybody's socks off!
It makes me think of all the students that are judged unfairly because they are unkept, unwashed and/or untutored. We overlook their needs and we overlook them, sitting in our classes among smartly dressed, smartly turned out kids who have had all the advantages. So often all it would take is a kind word, a little positive attention. What is it about human beings that makes us overlook what people have inside them and focus only on the surface?
I remember a student I taught 25 years ago. She was a student in what was then [and remains] perhaps the worst class I've ever had to teach - mostly kids from the "wrong side of the tracks" - many could barely read, and they had been passed on from grade to grade up through the years with little expected from them, until they landed in my 9th grade "basic physical science" class. I kept Chris after school during the first week of class because she had not done her homework. Immediately, she had a hundred reasons including that she had 13 sibblings that she had to take care of when she got home from school - getting supper for them, getting them ready for bed [which they all shared] - it was intolerable that children should live in those conditions, and unimaginable that a 14 year old would have those responsibilities. But I made her stay until her bus came - that day and every day after. She stayed in my room instead of going to her "bus room" and did her homework, not only mine but for all her classes.
Fast forward five or six years. One day I got a letter with a return address that said "from the last person on earth you ever thought you'd hear from." In the enclosed letter, Chris apologized for the class - she knew they had really tried my patience -- but she also said thanks; I was the first teacher who had ever made her do her homework, the first teacher who believed she could do her homework. Because I believed in her, she said, she could believe in herself. She went on to say that she had gotten involved in the Salvation Army and had continued to do her homework and study - and that she was at Belmont Abbey College on a Salvation Army scholarship, studying to be a psychologist. Had I not paid attention to her, and made her do her homework, she might well have simply slipped through the cracks as so many students do.
And I wonder how many other students didn't make my radar - that I didn't do what was needed for them. What happened to them?
In spite of the regrets for students I perhaps did not reach, I have to say - this is the paycheck, folks - one letter in 40 years of teaching. But it is worth it.