I run into former students once a while. At Home Depot. At the gym. At outdoor beer gardens. And so far, none of them have wanted to kick my butt. So far, most of them have wanted to talk about themselves, how they're still in school, or heading back next semester, or how their cousin plays for one of the Final Four teams. And I'm usually left thinking, huh, we do an OK job with lots of our kids.
But what about the kids I don't run into?
I recently talked with a guy who graduated--probably barely graduated--three or four years ago. Back in high school, he was a classic hell-raiser. The kind of guy who probably made at least one teacher quit and had another contemplating pressing charges. The kind of guy who ruined school for his younger siblings, because everyone in the building judged them by his actions. He's 21 now, has another year of undergrad work, but has already been accepted to graduate school.
"What do you want to do with a master's in criminal justice?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "I just want to get as much education as possible. I'll work the rest out later."
Wow, I thought. On the topic of his girlfriend and starting a family and all that, he said, "I'm only 21. I don't want kids. I want to travel, see the world."
Double-wow, I thought, this kid should come back to the school and be a mentor.
Then again, my current students wouldn't listen. Most teenagers don't listen until it's too late, or until they grow up a little. Here's what I mean: A while back, I had a former professional boxer visit the classroom. A graduate of our school, he went on to represent the U.S. in the Olympics before turning pro. He spoke for about 20 minutes about the importance of having dreams and chasing them, doing well in school, those kinds of things. And the whole time, my students sat there, slouched over, unimpressed. When he left, they made jokes about him.
But maybe when they grow up a little, some of the lessons will make sense. Hopefully it won't be too late.
"Do you ever hear from any other kids from my graduating class?" my former student asked.
"Every once in a while," I said, "but only if I run into them. I know that Rodney recently joined the Navy. But that's about it. Why? What's up with your old group?"
He said he barely ever saw anyone from high school anymore, but there was a party recently where many of them showed up. "Julie and Lucy were there," he said, "with their kids."
"They have children?" I asked. "Are they still going to school?"
"No, they're done with school," he replied. "I think every girl I graduated with has kids by now."
And that's a shame. I specifically remember Julie and Lucy (it seems like yesterday!), remember long talks about college with them, talks about how they would wait until they had their degrees and good jobs before thinking about children and families. Back then, they were this dynamic duo, ready to move up in life, to get out of the cycle their families had been in. They were going to make it. Meanwhile, this guy was the problem, the one heading nowhere.
At some point, their trajectories changed courses. And I'm left thinking, this is why we shouldn't give up any kid, no matter how rotten, and why we shouldn't put all our hopes in just the "good" ones.
"What about you?" my former student asked. "You ready to have kids yet?"
"No, I don't think so. I'm still too young."