“Yo! What Up, Dawg!”

I would love to say that this is a version of Bugs Bunny talking to a Loony Tune dog or maybe talking funny to Elmer.  But to do so would be lying.

This was how a student (a junior) addressed me four years ago.

On the first day of school

After he arrived ten minutes late to class.

Oh boy….this is going to be a great year….

And it actually was.

I believe in the concept of the second chance.  Actually, I believe in the second, third, and fourth chances.  I am not going to say that I am so amazing as to give infinity chances.  I know of several former students whom eventually ran out of the knots on the rope that I had carefully tied to keep them from falling overboard and being swept away by the violent water.  However, I still did my best to reach out my hand that one last time.  But I can’t always hold on when the student’s hand it wide open and nothing holds us together despite my tenacity and perseverance.

I can’t remember my verbal reaction to Lavon’s words:  “Yo!  What up, dawg!”  I know that my mental response was, “Oh God, here’s the troublemaker.”  Thankfully, I was wrong.

By the end of the year, Lavon was one of my many adopted sons.  I wasn’t his “dawg” anymore.  I was his Mama-C.  And at the beginning of his senior year, when he was looking at colleges, I bought him a huge book to help him prepare for the SAT.

Yesterday, Lavon came and visited me.  Looking a bit downcast, I could see that a weight was hanging on his shoulders and that his world wasn’t orbiting as smoothly as he had dreamed.  I won’t go into details because of his privacy and because I don’t know everything.

But I will tell you this:  after four years, I am still incredibly proud of my beloved son.

You see, Lavon was making some seriously negative choices when he was a freshmen.  I had accidentally been introduced to him because of a teacher’s concerns about him.  Two years later, I have the “what up dawg” person bursting into my classroom.  Almost two years after that, I was crying when he left the circle of my embrace and walked across the stage at graduation.

But I have never stopped being proud of Lavon.  Because he was someone who apparently needed a second chance (his words) and I didn’t know it.  I just loved him because he was my student and he needed someone to love him and to listen to him without judgment.

That is teaching.  It’s not about the curriculum or academic material.  Teaching is about pulling a young man out of his emotional gutter and holding on to him despite the prickles, the thorns, or the possible negative preconceptions that are twisted around him and are trying to keep the world out.

Teaching is about pushing aside your own personal agenda (teaching the material) and pulling your students close to you and holding on to them so that they can see that they are your first priority.

I was blessed to have taught Lavon both his junior and his senior years.  I was blessed to watch him grow from a young man who was dabbling in cultures that were much darker and much more dangerous than I would have wanted for him and to choose to change his life and pursue changing the world not for himself…

but for the benefit of others.

Currently, he is an incredibly successful businessman, a real estate agent, a potential university student who wants to get his degree in architecture.  Currently, he dreams about music and breaking into the music industry.

Yesterday, he “gave back” to the school by going to a local grocery store and buying Pop Tarts, Capri Sun juices, and applesauce for a teacher who makes brown-paper-bag-breakfasts and lunches for students.  She doesn’t ask about their financial situation.  She just knows that hunger crosses the financial lines and it’s more important to her to ensure that a child has had an opportunity to eat.  And Lavon, when he was in high school, was a recipient of this teacher’s generosity.

Lavon once told me that my classroom was an “art room.”  Now, I teach English.  Not art.  I like to doodle.  I like to encourage creativity. But I am not an art teacher.  So, naturally I was confused when he told me this.

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Because you let us think and feel and express what we want,” he explained.  One of my philosophies of literary analysis is that so long as the person can use the literature to support his/her point, then that person is right.  Because the majority of the writers I teach are either dead or definitely not in my classroom.  And the last time I asked a writer to come to my classroom, he was going to charge me $20,000 just to come into the room.  That was likely not going to include transportation, hotel, or meals.

Yeah.  Sorry.  At the time, $20,000 was about half my salary before taxes.  Not going to do fund raising just to have you come to my classroom for an hour.

So, it was important for my students to know that their opinions have value and merit.  And to do so, I have to suspend my opinion and let the students explore and prove their own.  Because, in the end, I already have my diploma and it’s time for the students to earn theirs.

Seeing Lavon yesterday was a validation of everything I believe about my job.  His success, his financial and personal independence are attributes of a young man who was able to see the world and not let it define him but, instead, he chose to define it.

Lavon is trying to start a program for at-risk youth, “Men mentoring Men.”  He also wants to enlist other students who have graduated to start donating books to the English department, in my name (I am truly humbled).  He wants to start a scholarship.  He truly wants to give back.

Two days ago, I was told that I was no longer going to be eligible to earn an award.  Yesterday, I had a beloved student, my adopted son visit me.  He brought me a Starbucks Vanilla-Yummy-Drink.  He told me about how I inspired him.  He brought in Pop Tarts, Capri Sun, and applesauce, enough to help feed hungry students for the rest of the year.

I am proud of my son…and I don’t mean the Boy.  I mean my beloved Lavon, who saw a world that he realized was unacceptable and hurtful, and took a hold of the constellation of stars that was defining him and redrew them in the sky so he could create his own fate.

I didn’t do this for him.  But I’m honored that I was there and stood as witness to the emergence of an incredible young man.

By the way, the person in the picture for this post is Lavon…playing Lady Macbeth.  Don’t judge him.  I made him dress up.

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