Friday, October 12, 2007

Small victories

After class, a girl comes up to me, absolutely beaming. I can feel her enthusiasm as she smiles and excitedly starts talking. "I talked to my mom about what you told me last week," she says. "And she agreed with everything. And on Sunday, she wouldn't even let me out of the house! So I stayed home all day, and read, and did homework. And I really liked the book. I'm not finished yet, but I love it, and I'll finish soon."

"And I bet it felt really good to actually be a student," I say.

"Yeah! I actually understood everything. It was great."

Last week, I had taken this girl aside to find out why she just wasn't doing that well in my class. We ended up talking for 20 minutes, while a friend waited impatiently for her in the hallway. Turned out she wasn't doing well in class because she was working too much. From 5 to 11 p.m. every day at a donut shop.

Why was she working so much? Because she's supporting herself and a sister while mom's working to provide for the other siblings. Still, I wanted to know, did she need to work that many hours? Isn't it illegal to keep a 16 year old out on a weekday until 11?

I told her that an intelligent girl like her could win tons of scholarships worth a lot more than her job was paying. "Yes, it might mean you have to do without so much stuff right now," I said. "But you have to think about your future. What's more important? A little happiness now? Or a great future with a great education?"

That was on Friday. I didn't expect much. I mean, I have these kinds of talks all the time. And they usually end in failure. It's hard to think about the future when you have so many needs in the present.

There was no school Monday. Then, on Tuesday, she came in on time, took a test on the novel, and then later we had that talk. It's Thursday evening now, and I'm thinking about that conversation, thinking that it's the highlight of my week. Maybe the school year so far. It's not so much that she listened to my advice. It's the absolute joy on her face when she told me she spent Sunday studying and that it felt great. Great to be reading amazing literature. Great to be gaining knowledge. I don't know if I ever had a realization like that when I was in high school.

"So what are you going to do about money?" I ask.

"Well, my mom wants me to quit. I called and gave my two-week notice. But my boss wants me to stay, says I can work just on the weekends."

"So you can have the week to be a student."

"Yeah, there's this club I'm going to join that meets on Mondays. And then I can go home every day and do homework."

"That's really great. I'm really proud of you."

I didn't realize just how proud I was of her until that night when I graded the test she had taken. It was pretty straightforward, except for one really tough question that demanded thoughtfulness and attention to detail. Only one student got it right.

My happiness didn't last too long. Today, she didn't make it to class, which is first period. Showed up late to school. I saw her briefly later on.

"Why did you cut my class?"
"I didn't cut. I came late."
"That's a cut."
"Sorry. But I heard you told the class that I was the only one to get that one question right."
"You did. But you still failed the test."
"Why? What did I miss?"
"Maybe if you came to class you would find out."
"I will. Sorry."

Looks like we'll be having another talk. I'm hoping for another small victory.

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