Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Pollyanna by Choice

I'm actually eager to share the good things that have been happening in my Conceptual Math class since my last discouraging post.  I've never had a Conceptual course go this well, and I'm mourning the fact that the state is getting rid of the class after this year.

But today, I think I need to talk about what's been really weighing on my mind lately.  I'm hesitant to write about this because I don't like to publicly comment on this sort of thing, but...  here goes.

Last week, a student of mine murdered someone.  Yep.  It's a bit surreal for me so typing it is still uneasy.  I don't live in a neighborhood where shootings are common place, so I'm still wrapping my head around it all.  I wasn't there so I'm left interpreting the news story and various first and second hand accounts that have come out about that night.  But it seems that he was having a fight with his girlfriend.  An innocent neighbor in the area came out to intervene and was walking back inside when my student shot him four times in the back.

Obviously, I'm devastated for the family of the man who was killed.  The news reports say his fiance urged him not to go outside, because she had a bad feeling.  It was his son's fourth birthday.  I can't imagine the loss that they are feeling.  And any sympathizing that I might do with my student feels like a betrayal to that man's life and memory.

But here is my problem...  I liked this kid.  I really did.  He was a kid with some issues...I knew that.  But, prior to this weekend, I would've argued that he was redeemable.  And I certainly wouldn't have seen him as someone capable of this sort of thing.  I've been stunned by it.  And, strangely, disappointed and disillusioned as well.

A few days ago, when I was talking with an administrator and a colleague about the students we have that seem like they are just never going to get it...the value of what we are offering them...I started to brag about a student who had graduated a few years ago.  A student who, I had thought, had secured himself a job, built a family, and found a way to be a positive and productive member of society despite all the signs during his high school years that it would never have happened.  Then, my administrator interrupted me to let me know that student had recently been arrested and was in jail on domestic battery charges.

Then he chided me for being a Pollyanna.

And it's true.  I've always been drawn to the lost causes that pass through my classroom.  Those kids who seem to have had everything going against them in life.  They didn't choose to be born into families that are full of drug abuse and sketchy values.  It's not their fault no one read to them as children or instilled in them the value of an education.  They decide early on that they aren't intelligent, that school isn't their thing...and they try to figure out their place in a world that looks very different than the world I'm trying to sell them.

But I see something in them...some sort of potential or spark.  And I hang on to that even when there is much evidence to the contrary.  A former colleague of mine used to dub me Glinda...because he said I came floating into our classroom so sure that all of little ideals and dreams could be achieved for these kids.

And then something like this happens...and the bubble is burst.  And I can't help but wonder if my idealism and hopes are misguided.  If nothing we do really makes a difference.  If they walk through our doors the first day of their Freshmen year, and their destiny is already laid out before them.  We have our students who are from the "right" families.  And it doesn't seem to matter if they have good teachers or poor teachers...they find make their way through high school building their resumes and preparing for the next step.  They move on to college and they find their place in life.  And then, there are the others, who aren't from the "right" families...who find themselves jumping from job to job when they can't handle the expectations that adult life requires of them...and all too often, they find themselves behind bars.

I know there are choices they make too.  I know they get their on their own.  But it seems so self-defeating.  Their climb is all uphill.  I've listened as groups of these students peruse the online jail websites looking at the mugshots of their friends and family members, recounting stories of who they know and the time they've served.  And it's hard not to question whether anything we do makes a difference anyway.  And if I'm a fool to see this "potential" where statistics and probability suggest that very little is likely to exist.

But what else can I do?  I'm a teacher.  If I stop believing in the unlikely...stop hoping that these kids can crawl their way out of their circumstances into a better future for themselves...why would I get in my car and drive to work each day?  What would be the point if I'm only there to help the ones that are destined for success no matter what I do?

At lunch this week, a colleague whose philosophy of teacher I admire greatly remarked on all of it.  She said, "I can be cynical about education policies and even my administration, but I refuse to be cynical about my students."  And I guess that's where I am.  I realize that I may not be living in reality.  I know that all of my efforts aren't likely to make much difference for the trajectory of many of these lives.  But I will not stop believing...and trying.

So...I'm a Pollyanna, I suppose.  But that's a choice I make each day when I walk into the classroom.  And when I stop making that choice, I hope I choose to stay home and let some other Pollyanna take my place.


  1. I am very sorry about your student being involved in the shooting. Hang in there! You are making a difference by being there and believing in all those students.

  2. This is a shockingly honest and personal post. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    Don't ever give up on being the Pollyanna. It's what separates those who are teachers and those who are waiting for retirement.

    In reality, if your principal feels that you're being a Pollyanna, and that it's a bad thing, it means that it's time for him to retire. Cynicism creeps into all of us, but when it becomes commonplace, then it's time to change jobs.

    You are fighting the good fight and you have an army behind you. Keep up the good work!

  3. +1 what both untilnextstop and Justin said. It's tough always looking for the best in people and it hurts when we are disappointed. But it doesn't keep us from continuing to look for the best. Keep being Pollyanna!

  4. Jamie,
    I just discovered this blog and read this post....I wish that I taught with you! I too am a Pollyana - and I've been teaching almost 22 years. If you don't believe that your students will develop skills in perseverance and positive goal setting, if you don't believe that you have the power to be a role model, advocate for them, be a "cheerleader" for them, they won't ever find their voice - they might not ever feel that someone "good" has their back... Thanks for writing this post!

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