Second in my series of alumni visits, another one of my wild freshman boys came by last week in the form of a soldier: Private First Class Lopez. This was also one of my underachievers, flagged “at risk’ by his 8th grade counselor. I had him in my Freshmen English class and my colleague, Ms. Linder, had him in an English support class.
Ms. Linder found him in the parking lot after school one day and walked him back to my room. He shared his story with both of us, a welcome respite from the insanity of final grades and packing up our classrooms for summer.
After graduating (barely), he continued to live in his hometown of Pixley. He pieced together a couple of minimum wage jobs and occasional field work, partied, and talked about the good ol’ days in high school with his buddies, secretly wishing he would have cared or paid more attention...basically, wanting a redo.
He watched some of his friends immerse themselves fully into the gang lifestyle, others became teen parents, and some just got stoned and played video games all day.
This, he decided, was not for him.
He made an appointment with an Army recruiter and enlisted. He is now stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii at Schofield Barracks - in an odd twist of fate, this is my hometown and exactly where my father was stationed when we moved to Oahu in the late 70s.
He remembered my Hawaii photos on my classroom wall and was so excited to share all about his new home knowing it was my old one. He has travelled all over the world including Philippines and Thailand.
“I never thought a little boy from Pixley would be doing all this,” he sighed.
But, what he was probably most proud of was his brand new 2015 black licorice Camaro that he just bought and drove onto campus. Now, I’m not a car person, but this really made me smile.
“It’s a physical symbol of your success and hard work. Good for you, Private.”
He then thanked us. He thanked Ms. Linder and I for being so loving and nurturing…”like moms” to him. He said he always loved walking up the stairs to our classes because he knew we would be in the doorway smiling and greeting him - we teach across the hall from each other so it was always a “2 for 1” special, no matter which of us he had that period. He could count on us.
Then something interesting happened: he wanted to know where Mr. Smith was, one of our colleagues. We told him he was probably in his classroom wrapping up and told him the room number.
“He would love to see you!”
Private 1st class responds: “I don’t think so, Mrs. J. I hate that mother f&^%$er.”
He goes on to explain that Mr. Smith was hard on him. One day when he came in stoned to class, Mr. Smith said he would end up in prison and be a loser his whole life if he didn’t shape up. Mr. Smith talked to him everyday about his future plans, made him stay after class to finish homework, and called home when he acted up. It was Mr. Smith he thought about when he enlisted for the Army and it was Mr. Smith he imagined when he was in boot camp and didn’t think he could climb the wall on the obstacle course...not Ms. Linder and me.
He wanted to show Mr. Smith the Camaro. He wanted to show him that he had proved Mr. Smith wrong.
This got me thinking about how drastically different our approaches are as educators. The words Mr. Smith uttered would NEVER come out of my mouth, yet this tactic seemed to propel this young boy through some of the toughest moments of his life. Could he have done it without Mr. Smith’s challenge ringing in his head? I really don’t think so.
The tough love versus the soft love approach and the unique organic relationship every student has with each teacher creates a dynamic, multi-layered learning environment. We need each other. I need Mr. Smith to speak the hard truth to kids and Mr. Smith needs me to allow kids to cry on my shoulder and give me a big bear hug.
I don’t know if he found Mr. Smith that day, but I don’t think he needed to.
Private 1st class had succeeded, he had gotten out of Pixley, and he owned a Camaro.