“Was it you or I who stumbled first? It does not matter. The one of us who finds the strength to get up first, must help the other.” – Vera Nazarian
“Education is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians. It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects, teach them to think straight, if possible.” – Robert M. Hutchins
In my first and brief career as a teacher of teenagers, I learned much. When one of the brightest young seventh-graders to whom I taught proper punctuation and other bits of grammar announced her pregnancy, I grieved.
It was my first year as a teacher and the other more experienced teachers laughed at what they called my naiveté.
All these years later I’m still somewhat sure the bigger tragedy was not the young pregnant girl, but the cynicism of those teachers who acted like seventh-graders having babies was normal.
Two of my former students, both bright and funny and smart, are now incarcerated, paying for crimes committed well into adulthood.
One I lost touch with long ago and have learned of his wrongdoings through the years by other former students.
My heart broke when I remembered his family – his mother a teacher, too.
The other student I’ve remained close to through the decades. We’ve exchanged emails and phone calls; we’ve visited when he was in Mississippi or the few times I’ve been in the nation’s capital.
I think of them both often and wonder at what point their journeys became jumbled. And why?
In years past when I’ve talked about my teaching time, I’ve said – tongue in cheek and hoping to be wrong – that I feel sure a few of my former students may be residents down at Parchman Farm, or some other penitentiary.
This is not a judgment on their character, or perhaps it is. But I knew this baker’s dozen of young boys only as 11th-graders.
It was called Practical English, this class that assembled third period each day.
These were kids who already should have been out of high school, but had failed multiple times. The powers that be had given up on them.
So I was to teach them practical skills – like balancing a checkbook, filling out forms and other tasks I loathed, “and throw in a little simple English from time to time.”
One morning near the end of class, I sat on my desk as we just chatted about life. They’d heard I was shopping for a stereo for my car.
“Miss Criss, we’ll get you a stereo,” one of my boys said as the others smiled and nodded.
“How much?” I asked.
“Oh, it won’t cost you a cent.”
Suddenly it registered, these students of mine, these lost boys, were planning a heist. For me.
For the next few days, we talked about honesty and integrity – practical, but important things.
I hope it somehow made a difference. And that they are all living productive lives somewhere.