For the “Other” Kids

I spent the last seven days writing recommendation letters for a collection of incredibly accomplished young people. These students maintained 4.0 GPAs while battling multiple AP courses; they were all heavily involved in campus activities: presidents, captains, officers, starring players; the volunteered at churches and community centers; they taught yoga, or boxing, or swim lessons.

These are teenagers. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-old babies. Still, when I look at this sampling of America’s youth, I see future pediatricians and policy makers; groundbreaking journalists and gracious philanthropists; community leaders and compassionate family members.

Of course, not all students have such a repertoire of accomplishments for a teacher to rave about in a recommendation letter, and while a few of the letters I wrote embellished this accomplishment or that trait, none were a labor to write. However, there are certainly students whose faces come to mind when I ask myself the question,

What would I say about my “other” kids?

The kids who weren’t pushed to take the opportunity — either by teachers, parents, or internal motivation — to challenge themselves in Advanced Placement classes. The kids who work 40 or 50 hours a week to help support their families and don’t have time for sports, clubs, or drama. The kids who can’t navigate the social ebb and flow of high school. The kids who’ve made one, or two, or two dozen poor choices and don’t really know what good decisions are anymore.

You know: the “bad” kids. The “thugs.” Future “welfare queens” and “deadbeat dads.” Failures. Wastes.

I recently attended a training focused on the AP English Language curriculum, which the majority of the teachers in my group hadn’t yet taught. When asked what they most looked forward to about teaching AP English, many of these educators — many of whom had been in the profession for a decade (or three) — voiced relief that they wouldn’t be teaching “the tough kids” anymore.

In other words, the kids who didn’t want to, who couldn’t, learn.

I’ve only been teaching for a year, and only half of that year was spent at the helm of an AP class, but my experience surmounted theirs and I was therefore struck with fury that professional educators could be so narrow minded. But it wasn’t only that these highly educated, academic professionals were disparaging an entire population of America’s youth — about whom they seemed to know or understand very little; I was furious because I was one of “the tough kids.”

I didn’t have a four-mile resume by the end of my junior year. In fact, I didn’t have anything at the end of my junior year… because I didn’t attend junior year. Or senior year. I dropped out of high school. and while there were a handful of factors that informed that decision, the most influential was my experience in tenth grade English. Or rather, my experience with my tenth grade English teacher… who was a veteran educator, the department chair, and a respected member of the community. And probably attended plenty AP summer trainings in her day.

Like all teenagers, I was unsure of myself and felt out of place in my own body in high school. I was reticent. I had a few very close friends but was otherwise invisible — or visible in ways I didn’t want to be, and I was moody and miserable — as teenage girls are wont to be.

The closest I came to feeling fulfilled during my high school years was when I was writing, and I was good at it. So good that senior English teacher invited me into her creative writing elective (which was reserved for juniors and seniors) in my freshman year. Good enough to easily get A’s in English every year of school… including sophomore year, with Mrs. Bradley.

However, aside from excellent grades in English, I didn’t quite “get it.” I rarely did work in math and inviolably skipped P.E. When I spoke up in class, it was generally to say something snarky or rude — and then get sent out. My grades weren’t terrible, but they were unimpressive. And my attitude was just nasty. 

But toward the end of second semester sophomore year, when Mrs. Bradley asked our class of twenty students who among us was interested in taking AP English in our junior year, I did something I never did in class: raised my hand. Exuberantly. I might have even stood up a little, because that’s how sure I was that AP English was for me.

Mrs. Bradley wasn’t convinced. She didn’t respond to any of the other students’ raised hands — all of which belonged to the type of student I described at the start of this essay: the socio-academic mavericks. But she looked me in the eye, frowned a condescending smile, and said — in front of the entire class — that I might  want to consider the standard English class, because “even honors” would be a stretch for me.

She saw me as many of the teachers I met last week saw their “other” students: unwilling or unable, in some way, to excel… or even succeed. Her disbelief in me was the largest and final straw; I dropped out a few weeks later, shortly after the last day of sophomore year, and effectively sealed the nail in my “otherness” coffin.

So, a snapshot of me at age sixteen would reveal a high school dropout working a low-wage food service job by day and smoking cigarettes with her friends in a parking lot by night; enrolled in community college but rarely attending classes… and, when I did attend, I was high.

The person I just described is the type of student who I’d have a hard time recommending to anything — job, college, scholarship, internship. But that specific sixteen-year-old grew up to be me, and I’m a professional, social, and academic badass.

Not of my own doing, though. My mother, my community college professors, and my high school creative writing teacher recognized my “otherness” as exceptional. They didn’t allow me to become the stereotype I was so easily fitting into. And of course our critics are our greatest motivators… perhaps Mrs. Bradley knew this. Either way, her cruel misjudgment has been at the back of my mind for a decade now, a small, smoldering, spike of near-molten steel prodding me ever forward.

When I — or any educator– start to see my students as successful (or not) based on what they can do, on who they currently are, a dangerous precedent is set. Success at sixteen doesn’t translate to success at twenty-six, or forty-six, or ever. It is not the teacher’s right to decide which student will or won’t be “someone.” In the words of the late, brilliant educator Rita Pierson, every child needs a champion; as this badass high school student put it, this is my country’s future and my education. 

So, what would I say about my “other” kids? While the specifics depend on the child herself, I think I’d say that “this student will be exactly as exceptional as she is made to believe she can be, but only until she realizes that she is more exceptional than anyone else’s expectations.”

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