On Tuesday, I recognized Monday’s oversized hand-me-down concert tee on Brandon, ketchup stain still lingering dead-center of his chest. I doubt he had noticed; for all the downward looking he accomplished as he walked through the hallways, it never seemed like Brandon knew exactly what to look for. The same could be said for his presence in my class. His sullen eyes never fixed on a target and, in the rare instances that I would call on him, he looked just to the left of my head as he mumbled a deflective answer. He was getting an abysmal grade in my class from the start, and for all intents and purposes, his primary function in my class was to keep a chair warm.
The ketchup stain returned on Friday. I think Brandon had noticed at this point, sitting with his arms crossed, today looking out the window for the first half hour of my class. In the early days of our relationship, I let Brandon be. I’m a rookie teacher, still gaining my bearings, expending most of my daily minutes planning engaging lessons. I work hard to teach engaging classes through seven hours of adrenaline-soaked panic of anticipated mid-lesson failure. All the while, Brandon sat in the fourth row in my fifth-hour Spanish class, always just out of focus. With a GPA just bubbling above a 1.3, this 14-year-old had arrived in dangerous territory.
Along with death and rush-hour traffic, failure is one of life’s great equalizers. For my high school freshmen, failure is always a closer reach than success. “Adulthood” is knocking. They wake up every morning with a trained sense of urgency to complete a pre-career to-do list waxed poetic by their parents. With this pressure and even at this age, many of them perceive their ships to have already set sail. Brandon had skated through middle school and half of 9th grade with the rock-bottom level of “achievement.” No one had stopped to ask why. Brandon had spent his formative years keeping classroom chairs warm and occasionally getting past question 3 on a test. He had fallen through the cracks, and it seemed like no one had noticed.
I initially blamed Brandon for laziness. I demanded that he meet with me on his lunch to discuss his (lack of) performance in my class. He arrived promptly and I sat across from him at a student table. I asked him about his other classes: which was his favorite (history, he guesses), which was the hardest (math, but he’s never gotten math), what he was going to take next year (probably the same stuff, he also guesses.) I asked him what he felt he would need to be successful in my class. Like many of his peers, he believes “time to study before tests” would lead him to success. It certainly spoke of the tests-and-numbers culture into which Brandon entered this first year of high school.
I asked him what “success” meant to him, and he shrugged.
“Probably a good grade,” he mumbled, looking to the right this time. He uneasily left after I gave him some canned teacherly responses about effort and expectations.
After school, I sat at my desk for what seemed like hours. I was numb. Brandon had never known success personally. It was mythical for him. I’d had troubled students before, but they were all noticeable – by behavior, by reputation, by body odor – but never had I had one reach me that was so listless. The most unsettling of my conclusions of Brandon was that he didn’t seem like a kid who felt a little hopeless, but rather he seemed to have never hoped at all.
In our school “careers,” we encounter a myriad of teaching personalities. Some characters we remember forever. They’re coaches or crazy old ladies or the one you have a crush on. We typically remember the ones who made a special effort with us, and teachers are acutely aware of all of their students’ potential. I got into the profession to change kids’ lives, and at best I significantly reach a handful in a class with all of the extra roadblocks that come with being a teacher. I have had plenty of students who are lucky enough to gravitate to the top intrinsically, but at the end of the semester, I worry that I’ve failed the remainder, or that I’ll have missed the student who desperately needed to know that someone cares.
Brandon started seeing me at lunch every other day. We would spend thirty minutes painstakingly going over five-minute concepts until he would get my questions right. I spent my free time brainstorming activities for Brandon and me to work on together. He did the tasks slowly but methodically, never quick to rush to a finish line he couldn’t quite picture. Come test time, Brandon – whose test average bubbled just under 40% — managed to get a D- on the test. I plotted his test grades on a graph and had it waiting for him when he showed up one day.
He stared directly at the upwardly-sloping line graph for what seemed like a whole minute. He asked me if these scores were “really his.” I told him they were, and I thanked him for his continued work with me at lunch. I told him that his hard work had paid off and his overall grade would be out of the F range if the line continued on its path. I thanked him again for his determination and hurried him out the door so he could marinade in the concept of his first “success.” For the first time, he actually saw himself being successful. The proof was all there.
Brandon started coming in at lunch more frequently than every other day. Seemingly overnight, Brandon started volunteering answers in class. His eye contact improved, he started talking with students around him and he would engage me in the hallway. When my grading program displayed a C- next to his name near the end of the grading period, I stared at the screen until I realized I was grinning like a damn fool. I noted that of all of my students, his grade had gone up the most of any of them over the semester.
And for once, Brandon was #1.
I’m terrified that 150 Brandons passed me by this year. I’m terrified that I’ll miss a kid who’s never had someone care about him. I’m mostly terrified about the other 23 hours a day that my students experience. There is astronomical stress on my kids to both be wildly successful and have financial stability, neither of which the majority of our kids truly understand. To be honest, I don’t even know what success looks like. I guess I achieved tenuous success with Brandon, but the bigger scope is still daunting. Today’s kids are measured not by the little successes they demonstrate but the big successes that are the stuff of myth.
The last day I was with Brandon, his shirt was again stained. Having built a friendly rapport through our months of one-on-one work, I prodded him about his lunch “leftovers.”
“Come on, do you think I didn’t notice?”
Maybe he did, after all.