You remind me a lot of one of my favorite students from the 2001-2002 school year. During the very first fire drill for the year, a student, Zack, told me that he was “going to fail [my] class.” In the first week, he had already decided that he was not going to pass my class no matter what I was going to do.
As opposed to starting up the reassurances and promises that I might not be able to keep, I told him that he was going to pass my class. And when he did, I was going to write it on an ugly cake and make him eat the cake so he could tell the world that he had his cake and he was able to eat it too.
Well, Zack went through the year and I can’t remember how he did. But I remember going to Food Lion on the last official day of class and I bought him a cake that was aquatic in coloring with ugly fish on it. And I wrote with red gel “I am going to FAIL your class.” And his class and I celebrated Zack not failing my class and I cut out the word “FAIL” and made Zack eat that word.
Because I wasn’t about to give up on him. He might have decided that he wasn’t going to succeed, but he forgot that there were more than just one little part of the equation that needed to be reconciled and my will just happened to be a lot stronger than his desire to fail.
Three years after eating the word “FAIL,” Zack graduated from high school. Note, he also graduated from my English 12 class. And guess what he didn’t tell me on the first day…”I’m going to fail your class.” Because he already knew that I had an indomitable spirit that wasn’t going to settle for much of anything less.
Lavon was a lot like that, my beloved “Yo, what up dawg!” student. I don’t think that he wanted to fail. But he wasn’t going to work hard to pass, at least not at first. But with some tugging, shoving, and pulling, he made it through not one but two years and across a stage and into a very successful business.
And then there was James whose story you know. I still grow a little weepy when I think of my dear colleague helping James with the zipper on his graduation robe. As I type this, my eyes blur with the memory of presenting James his graduation packet with his tickets, his parking pass, his hope for the future. I know that he has still struggled, has been told that he is worth nothing. But I know that he is worth more than the words that people tell him, at least the negative words. And if I could, I would write those words on an ugly cake and make him eat them as well. Because if you can eat your failures, then they cease to be a burden that is carried from one stage of life to another.
They become part of the nutrients that will make you grow. Even if those nutrients are sugar and nasty frosting gel.
So when you came into my classroom at the beginning of the year, you with your impish grin and fractured temper, I heard Zack’s voice one more time, “I am going to FAIL this class.” What you didn’t know was that Zack’s picture was up on one of my bulletin boards the entire year, almost like a guardian angel watching someone try on his shadow and realize that he was stepping into the toes of a very successful set of shoes.
I am up for challenges…I don’t always want to be. But I also know that I want to see my students succeed. When the girl tried to attack me, I never actually pressed charges against her. People asked me to…she had called me bad words. But they were just a collection of sounds strung onto violent fury because she might have had a bad day or a bad experience and she needed a place to unleash her animosity and I was there. Does this mean I like being the sacrificial lamb? No. I like my dignity. I like my sense of self-respect.
But I never even really saw her as personally attacking me. She didn’t know me well enough to create emotional pain. She could have physically hurt me and I was readying myself for it. But the pain never came and I finished the evening’s class and went home and she has become nothing more than a story I tell my students when the time is right.
So, Lucas, you were a challenge. You knew you were a challenge. Every time you turned around and tried to talk to the people behind you, or steal their pens and paper (Yes, I saw you…I’m old, not stupid), or just try to be obnoxious in general, I felt the edges of your challenges, this “What are you going to do?” rhetorical question.
But, the purpose of the rhetorical question is not to elicit an answer but a response, a knee jerk reaction. I knew what you were doing. You knew what you were doing (really…that mischievous grin?).
Lucas, you like to present to the world an exterior of arsenic-laced barbed wire that will cause pain to anyone who tries to get close to you…or try to help you. And I’ve been pricked a couple of times, felt myself bleed. I also know, though, the pressure of your arm across my shoulders when you went from being a bold man into a little boy searching for approval.
You want to walk into the world with big shoes, a straight back, and a head held high. And I want to see you walking that way. But, for now, take little steps and learn your place and see how you are supposed to fit into the world.
Because when you learn to channel all that energy and intelligence and goofiness, you will be an indomitable spirit who could be such a powerfully good person who will make incredibly positive changes to a world that loves to destroy.
And when you do, come back and see me. I have a cake for you.