On my way to school each morning before daybreak, I used to pass the same man walking down the road, a sweater swung over his shoulder, lunch bag in hand, eyes glaring at the pavement, never looking up. Instinctively, I waved, but he never responded.
Weeks passed and it became a game to see if I could get his attention, but even a single, admonitory horn blast in the still morning air caused him only to take a step off the road and continue his conventional walk toward – I never knew where.
I wanted to yell “Wake up, old man; the world’s passing you by,” but rational responses prevailed. It’s a sinuous, hilly road, and scenery is limited before dawn. I made up stories to pass the time. One day he was a stockbroker, the next day a hit-man, a poet, a cellist, a traveling preacher, and a tenor for the local operatic society on his way to the VFW. Once, I even considered the possibility that he was a philanthropist who had given away millions in an effort to live closer to nature. I was young and idealistic. I couldn’t accept the fact that the man was merely a laborer, probably minimum wage, a workman with no future other than walking every day to work, a man who never truly touched life.
Months passed, and I named him Bartleby – Bartleby on his way to death. It was cruel, but semi-darkness evokes sinister feelings. I drove on. “Have a good day, Bartleby!” In the stifling morning air before sun-up as I followed the man’s shape in my rear-view mirror, I could almost hear his response: “I would prefer not to,” as darkness enveloped his body.
“Wake up, old man! The world’s passing you by!”
I received my best advice about teaching that year, my first year in the classroom, but, like most advice, it came much too late.
Randy sat on the back row in my third-period class. He was a wall-hugger, content with anonymity. Meanwhile, I was a pure English teacher in those days. I taught the parts of speech; simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences, onomatopoeia, alliteration, personification, and epiphany. I moved quickly; there was so much to learn and so little time. “Better keep up, kids, or I’ll leave you behind!”
Randy hugged the wall, and I listed the zeros daily. The kid was fifteen years old, several years behind in reading and failing every class, but his parents never called the school. They just didn’t care!
By spring, the biography unraveled. Randy lived right up the street in a run-down shack, its sagging front porch propped up with concrete blocks. Forgotten, long-ago useless cars spotted the yard where daffodils and geraniums should have bloomed. Randy caught the bus down the road so that other students wouldn’t see where he lived.
In all of the years that Randy and his brothers and sisters had been in school, no teacher had ever made contact with the parents. There was no phone, and letters mailed home were returned the following day by one of the embarrassed children who reported that no one in the house could read.
Often, food was short.
I felt sorry for him. His childhood was so different from my own. Poverty was something I recognized only in magazines. With a callow, black-and-white assessment, I thought I understood Randy. He had enough anxiety in his life without me creating more. He hugged the wall, and I rarely intervened. If he found trouble in the work I gave, I patted him on the shoulder in the condescending way that rookie teachers exhibit so frequently, and I gave him an easier assignment. When he turned in a paper, I automatically gave him a much higher grade than the other students, even when I knew it was not his best work. When he was tired and put his head on his desk, I allowed him to sleep right through my class. At no time did it ever occur to me that a TRUE teacher would have sat down beside Randy and said, “I know you’re having trouble, but I also know you can do the work. Let me help you get started.”
Randy dropped out of school the last day of spring quarter, and that is when an “old-timer” a “lifer” in teaching who had grown up in Techwood Homes, America’s first public housing unit, approached me. Despite terrible odds, with the help of a few good teachers who were willing to take extra time with her, she had graduated from high school, graduated from college, and dedicated her life to helping students. “Don’t ever give up on a kid like that,“ she told me. “Too many people already have, and he doesn’t need anyone else feeling sorry for him. You’re all that stands between that kid and the future.”
The report card shows that he failed my class, but I know how much I failed Randy. He needed encouragement, and I taught him symbolism. He needed direction and someone to show him how to succeed, and I talked about hyperbole and assonance. He needed someone to care, and I marked zeros and watched him hug the wall. It was so easy to do; everyone else had also given up on him.
As trite as it sounds, experience is often the best teacher. Today, whenever I’m tempted to give up on a student, I think back to Randy. The day that memory no longer arouses action, I’ll walk away from my classroom forever. Perhaps I couldn’t have changed him, but the most haunting memory of all is that either through lack of effort, misguided compassion, or insufficient desire, I never really tried.
Full of hope, one morning in the following fall, I watched as the headlights captured two approaching figures on the side of the road. In the darkness of the early morning, it was impossible to differentiate father from son as they walked toward – I never knew where.
I wish I had a second chance with Randy.
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