John was in my eighth-grade class. He was a rascal and my favorite kind of student. He was rambunctious and smart as a whip. And he and his family lived in poverty. His favorite memory of middle school is when I gave him detention time after school.
“Why’d I get this?” he exclaimed.
“Because you’ve racked up four deductions for talking and disrupting class,” I calmly said.
He looked down at the detention slip, “Well, OK then.”
It’s one of our favorite stories.
This weekend, I de-friended him on Facebook because it breaks my heart to see his life. I did everything I could to get him to college. He now works at a farm and drinks his earnings at night.
When I moved to a high school position, John was in my class again. During a unit on careers, I worked on him to consider college. I saw his intelligence and wanted him to have a better life, a good job he enjoyed and a chance to support a family and children. He’d be the first in his family to get a college degree. He could break the cycle of poverty. It was a project for two years.
He lacked self-confidence. He worried that he wouldn’t fit in. I knew he could do the work. He’d proven it many times by consistently earning As on assignments in class. I talked to him one-on-one about going to college. He resisted the idea vociferously. But toward the end of our careers unit, he said, “You know Mrs. Blevins, you’ve almost persuaded me.”
We talked about him fulfilling the requirement for the A+ program that offered two free years of education. He did his tutoring the next school year. Senior year, I bugged him to death and got him to sign up for the ACT test on a waiver since he got free lunches. His mother completed the qualifying paperwork. We filled out applications to several colleges that required no application fees. He didn’t have the money for the fees. I thought about paying his fees to some of them but waited to see where he wanted to go for sure. I was excited. It was going to happen.
One day he proudly showed me an acceptance letter from a college. He couldn’t believe they had accepted him. He was doing each step I asked but was cracking jokes and very uncomfortable with all of it. I could see he wanted to go but he just didn’t feel like he belonged.
We hit a snag with the financial aid. I encouraged him. I told him that he could get a part-time job and a small loan and it would be fine. He was scared through and through. I encouraged until I was blue in the face.
The morning of the ACT he texted me he was sick and unable to go. I have a feeling he was emotionally sick and it manifested in stomach problems. That was it. After two years of encouraging and gently prodding and assisting in any way I could, he didn’t go take his ACT. I regrouped and focused on getting John into the local junior college. Then his efforts stopped.
He still hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s working on a farm for minimum wage. He’s posting his drunken party pics and it makes me sad. That’s why I had to de-friend him. It hurts too much. I thought I could make a difference and help him get off the path of struggle and poverty. I feel like I threw the lifesaving device again and again. But he wasn’t able, or willing, to catch it.
Perhaps our efforts will resurface in his subconscious someday. Maybe he will see the value of the intellectual challenge of college. It’s only been a year. I’ll send a message with a friend, again, that if he needs any help I’m here.
You never know.
Blevins is a high school English and journalism teacher in Missouri.