Friday, March 9, 2018

Stepping out of the past

Day 9 of 31 at TWT!
"I remember this room!" A cheerful voice from behind my shoulder pulls me out of responding to student work.

Spinning my chair around, I have to blink to make sure my eyes are really seeing what they thought they saw: I am greeted by an almost-ghost: one of my former students from nearly 6 years ago, my first year teaching ELLs. "Oh my gosh! How ARE you?!" His first name pops into my head almost instantly, but I don't want to mess up, and my brain is spinning excessively, so I hold off for a minute as I scan him to figure out what on earth he's doing here.

"I'm working as an interpreter now! I had a meeting here, and I figured I'd stop by!" Taller, skinnier, exuding more confidence and insight than I ever would have imagined back then... but that slightly ornery twinkle is still hiding in the corner of his eye.

I wasn't sure this kid would make it. He was so sweet, but would barely do any work. He failed the last quarter of my class that year, and you have to try pretty darn hard to fail my class. The next fall, I found out he'd moved out of state over the summer, and I figured that was it. Now, here he was, all grown up into a young man with an agency interpreter ID badge around his neck. Did he really make it through high school?

"So you're back around here? I remember you'd moved to Georgia, right? How do you like being back?"

He talks enthusiastically about his interpreter job, then explains that he's been back here for just a few months and just started working at a local restaurant with another of my former students. "She said you come there a lot, so I knew you were still here, and after my meeting, I thought I'd see if you were down here!"

"I'm so glad you stopped in, R.!" I slip in his name now to make sure he knows I remember. How do I gently find out what I really want to know? "So, are you taking classes or anything?"

He sighs. "I actually dropped out of high school down there. I made it to my junior year, but money was tight, and I had to choose between school and work... I chose work. Besides, I was failing. I didn't want to do any schoolwork." Yep, that's the kid I was worried about. "You know, here, I felt like I had teachers pushing me to keep going. But down there, nobody cared. If I wanted to just sit in class and sleep, that was my choice, they told me."

"I'm sorry, R." If he would have stayed here, would we have gotten him through? I'm trying to reconcile that struggling kid with the mature young man standing in front of me. "But you've obviously have made some good choices to get yourself to where you are now!"

"Everything was so expensive there! My brother and I were working two construction jobs, and there still wasn't enough at the end of the month. So I came back here, and now I have my own apartment, and I'm doing mostly medical interpreting. I'm trying to study these manuals with only a 10th-grade education. But I really like it. These people, their stories are always different. The reason they call is the same, but what led to their need is always something different!"

His brother... "That's great! I'm so proud of you! How is G., anyway?"

His smile disappears. "You're not going to like this..." he looks sideways. "He turned into a drug addict. He's got all these tattoos all over now. If you saw him, you wouldn't even recognize him."

I put my hand over my mouth. "Oh, R! I'm so sorry." Out of the two of them, I thought his brother was the one who'd end up being successful. He had his rough spots, but he seemed so much more driven.

"I'm the only one who came back. My mom and everyone else are still down there. It's hard, because I'm alone, but I'm getting along."

My heart is starting to shred itself. That chubby, ornery kid, all grown up by things too hard to bear, doing his very best in spite of it all. One of my colleagues is at the door, waiting to update me on a new student, so I have to say goodbye to this almost-ghost from a past that seems very long ago to me, but probably so much longer ago to him. "I'm so glad you stopped by. You should be so proud of everything you're doing. I'll see you at the restaurant sometime soon!"

The rest of the night, I keep remembering snippets that year: him asking if I liked "kids like [them]",  discovering that "reading a book is just like watching TV", joking and making our class more fun. Me diving into the world of ELL, shocked at how hard our students work just to get by, frustrated by just how daunting this job is, amazed at their resilience through unspeakable challenges, and trying to establish myself as a teacher of readers and writers. I've grown so much as a teacher since then, but some things never change: it's kids like him who are really teaching me.


  1. I have felt this same way when a student I taught during my first few years is now approaching 20
    years old instead of 6 or 7. I am always hopeful I can remember their correct name.

    I love how you switch between your thoughts and your unexpected visitors dialogue.

  2. Wow! What a fantastic surprise that turned out to be. He has come so far! Sometimes there are good surprises in this line of work.

  3. I like how capture your worry and live all wrapped together in memories of him in your class.

  4. How sad that he felt no one cared in the new school and it wasn't worth doing. But, how wonderful that you were the person he came to see. Students' stories are heart-breaking, in particular yours, because they have been uprooted from their life and plopped down into a new country and new life. The work you do is vital for the success of our country. Thank you Jennifer!


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