Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Telling her story

Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers!
Last night, sleep wavered just out of reach.

Somehow, M. had popped into my head, and I found myself wondering about her: How's she doing? Is she still working toward a diploma equivalent? Is her daughter doing better?

Is there anything I could have done? 

Gosh, I would have loved to see her in a cap and gown.

WHY didn't anyone tell me they were going to withdraw her until it was already done?

Now I was getting more awake instead of more asleep. Back in April, I lost hours of sleep this way.


M.'s attendance had been slightly more sporadic than usual this spring, but I knew she had a lot going on. Yes, she'd sometimes give herself a little extra wiggle room to go out to breakfast or sleep in, but I couldn't imagine working two jobs and taking care of a two-year-old... AND navigating high school... in a second language. She deserved a little personal time now and then!

Besides, she was usually at school in time for my class, and she was doing wonderful work! She'd really found herself as a writer this year, and I always looked forward to her rich, wrenching descriptions.

I knew she was really having trouble in math, but she was working so hard to catch up...


That first Friday in April, one of the guidance counselors caught me in the office. "I think something's going to happen with M."

The exhilaration of the incredible field trip we'd just taken turned to stone in my stomach. School and district administration had threatened to withdraw her all year if her attendance didn't improve, but threats seem like bluffs when they go on too long. They weren't actually going to do it now, were they?

I tore around the corner to find my principal, but he was gone. That's ok, I'll catch him on Monday, I thought as I settled down to check emails, but returned to full panic mode when I saw the attendance list. A little note beside M.'s name said "Will be withdrawn."


Did they know everything that was going on with her? She was at a doctor's appointment today, and so many other days lately! Oh, why couldn't she just play the game and bring excusal notes?! We'd told her so many times...

Why hadn't they talked to me? They couldn't know everything that was going on with her. Did they know about her mom's stroke and her uncle's sudden death last year, her other uncle's death from cancer this fall, her daughter's recent hospitalization? Did they know she'd recently started going to a professional counselor? Had she even told her school counselor everything? Had they involved her counselor in the discussion? Had she fought for her?

Why now, with so little time left in the school year? She wasn't a troublemaker.

I know that compulsory education ends at 18. I checked her grades and saw an abysmal, unsalvageable percentage in math and other Fs due to incomplete work. I knew (with results pending) that she still needed to pass three sections of our state graduation test. But why not see if she could work with some of those other teachers to master those concepts? Why not let her earn her English credit and keep becoming a better reader and writer? Why not let her learn all she could for another month and a half? 


That Monday morning, I walked up to my principal breathlessly and just said M's name. "I just had to pull the plug," he replied. "She had to show me she was trying a little, you know?"

I sputtered and stammered something about how I knew she should have played by the rules more, but she had so much to deal with. I was practically speechless. I wanted to scream "try a little?! I think there's a picture of her in the dictionary next to 'hard work'!" but, this being only my second year in this building, I wasn't quite at the screaming stage, or even the hissing stage. I was just in shock.

You see, my principal is awesome at supporting struggling students. He is an incredible role model and advocate for kids that are just barely hanging on. He sees himself in our toughest young African-American men, and he thinks outside the box and cares for them like a father. That's why I was stunned speechless.

I didn't realize that kids could still fall through the cracks in our building. It didn't occur to me that he might not know all of our students' stories, because he knows so many. I didn't know that he might not look for a bigger story behind yet-another-Hispanic-teen-mom-with-poor-attendance-and-skimpy-clothes.


Two weeks later, I was supposed to hug her on stage at our special awards ceremony while another teacher read my nomination of her:
The whole auditorium was supposed to have filled with thunderous applause in recognition of her perseverance. Instead, she wasn't there, and neither was I.


We were supposed to keep supporting her, to find a way to help her make it. She was supposed to keep reading, writing, learning, and growing. Even if she didn't graduate on time, she was supposed to get there. She would have kept striving. Every reflective letter she'd ever written me was filled with determination to graduate. It wasn't supposed to end like this.

I don't think my principal meant to exclude her from his determination to save our toughest kids. I think, I hope, that he just didn't really know her. I guess we (I?) didn't tell her story soon enough. Or well enough. Or both.

That's why I'm telling it now. Where does an immigrant ELL teen mom who works two jobs and carries deep sorrow fit into a high school? If she doesn't quite fit into a structure that wasn't made with her in mind, does that nullify our responsibility to help her make her dreams come true?


When graduation test results came in May, she'd passed two of her three remaining sections. Just one more to go. I think she could have made it. I hope she somehow does.

Actually, I know she will. No matter what pieces of paper she's able or not able to eventually attain, she'll build a good life for herself and her daughter. She won't consider any other possibility.

I just wish we could have helped her a little more along the way. I wish I would have told her story louder, sooner. Next time I will.


  1. M is so lucky to have a passionate teacher like you! I hope she finds her way! -marcaureled

  2. I am trying so hard to not let the tears roll as I write this reply - tears for her, and for you. I have been both - the student fighting against unbelievable odds, and the teacher trying to tell the story. In reality - we are one - the fighter and the story teller. We are both trying to overcome the deck stacked against us - like fish swimming upstream in the river of life. And through these valiant efforts - some of us will make it. The ones that do are enough to give hope to the rest, and are why the fighter and the storyteller continue to believe. Continue to tell the story, louder and stronger each time - and like seeds of hope they will grow, because hope can be found even in the very darkest corners of this world.

    1. Thanks, Amy. This was a post that was hard to publish, and your eloquent comment really encouraged me! It is always an incredible feeling to know that my writing has made someone else FEEL. :-)

  3. This story breaks my heart. Too many kids slip through because their story is not told/known. You are such an advocate for your students, they are lucky to have you.

  4. I hope someday you can share this with your principal.

  5. I sat in shock as I read this post. I cannot imagine persevering through all of the challenges that M has had to endure. What a strong young woman! This was a great reminder to truly take the time to get to know our students and hear their stories - the deep, personal stories that don't come to the surface easily! People's stories are easy to miss when we don't take the time to really dig deep and connect with them. Thank for sharing M's story with us. I have no doubt that you were a blessing to her. I'm sure you played a huge role in the growth she experienced while at your school!

  6. You wrote: "Where does an immigrant ELL teen mom who works two jobs and carries deep sorrow fit into a high school? If she doesn't quite fit into a structure that wasn't made with her in mind, does that nullify our responsibility to help her make her dreams come true?"
    And I've been thinking about this for awhile. I don't have the answers. I wish I did. But I know it doesn't nullify our responsibility to help her make her dreams (for her and her daughter) come true.

    Thanks for sharing this. I can tell it was so hard to write. But we needed to read it as much as you had to write it.

  7. I don't know even where to start. So much sorrow here--on both sides. The struggles an immigrant faces, add to that a baby at a young age. No matter how hard one is trying, is it enough? These are the questions that we face all the time. These are the reasons why we must press hard (even if we fail). That is why we need a summer to recharge. Challenges will come. Sometimes prayer and God's grace are the only things keeping me going. It's not too late for M.


Comments make me happy and I'd love to hear from YOU! :-)