Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Former Student's Essay

Last weekend, a young gentleman approached me at Philz Coffee and asked if I had taught Living Skills one summer at Palo Alto High School. I answered affirmatively, stuck out my hand, and said "Hello Rahul, how are you doing?" The student paused for a moment and then quickly shook my hand. What transpired next was the usual game of catch up after not having seen a student for a decade: we reminisced about the summer, shared silly stories of what we enjoyed from the class, each provided an update on where we are now in our lives, and a mentioning of a peer from the class who they still keep in contact with. They usually add "and I don't think I would be friends with them if not for your Living Skills classroom".

The class itself was an semester elective made mandatory for graduation that many students struggled with fitting into their schedule during the school year. After all, when you're taking Journalism, playing a sport, and enrolled in five APs, it's a challenge to somehow fit the lone semester Living Skills class into your day. Thus, students flocked to enroll in a five to six week course where they'd learn about drugs, diseases, sex, and life. 

To this day, I can name at least half of the students from each class. Just as each class had a different personality, there were a few students who shined through. Raul above was definitely one of these students. Another was Anna.

Anna was destined for greatness. She was a rising Junior at the time, halfway done with high school. From memory, I can share that she ended up with the highest grade in the class. Everything she turned in was of extremely high quality. She seemed to "get" the big picture of school - how to do well without losing yourself in the process. As the classroom teacher, I often felt dwarfed by her empathy and compassion towards others. She was everyone's friend.

The final assignment for the students was an evaluation of the summer school experience, specific to our classroom. I promised the students that I would read every word they wrote and as long as it was a page, they'd get a perfect score on the assignment. I encouraged their brutal honesty and to allow the essay to flow in whatever direction it took them. Anna, forever the amazing student, wrote the following response, unedited below:

Evaluation of Living Skills

I generally really enjoyed this class. At first I was a little skeptical about how much fun we would have because I had heard form my friends who had taken it during the year, that it was extremely boring and nobody paid attention. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought this was a very useful class. I learned a lot more than I ever thought I would. This is the kind of class that I think I will remember. I won't remember algebra or chemistry, but I will remember the things we did in this class. The best part, in my opinion, were all the discussions we had. I really felt comfortable sharing my opinions. Usually, I am shy in class because I don't feel completely comfortable sharing my opinions. That was not the case in this class. I was really happy about that. I liked that everyone shared their opinions because I learned a lot about all different kinds of people. I also learned how lucky I am. I mean I guess I already knew that, but when I was listening to the stories of some of the people in our class, I was like "wow." My parents are so good compared to other people's parents. It made me really appreciate everything. Another thing I liked about this class was that it was so laid-backed. I liked that you didn't pressure anyone and didn't make us stress about anything. That was really nice. I also liked the activities we did like the survivor one and the friend or foe one. I liked the way you taught those valuable lessons. Experience is a better teacher than a lecture. I also liked all the movies we watched and the kickball games. I would actually look forward to class because I found it fun. I've never found a class that fun before.

There were a few things I did not like. I did not like the fact that people were allowed to take points from other people. I thought that was unfair and mean. People worked hard for their grade and I don't see any reason for other people to steal that away. There is no point in it whatsoever. I just thought that was really unfair. That's why I didn't do it. I also did not like the consequences from the kickball game. I don't think it was that unfair, except for the extra credit one, I just don't like writing essays. It kind of takes away the fun in the game.

Let's see, what would I do differently? I would not change much. As I said before I really did like the class. I had a lot of fun and it went by really fast. I guess what I would change is the point thing.I don't think you should do that next year because it's mean. People are being penalized for something that was not their fault or that they didn't deserve. Another thing I would change is the essay after the kickball game. I think it takes away from the game and it doesn't really teach anything. Actually, if you think about it, the one thing it does teach is that if you lose you get a consequence, once again proving that winning is everything. That's not a lesson we want to be taught, now is it? Ok, that's really all I can come up with. I seriously liked this class. I liked the grades. I liked how you graded the articles based on quality, I liked how you stressed participation because that's very important, and I liked that you did not really make people feel bad about their work or anything. I liked that you don't give F's either. I liked our activities and movies and liked all the talking. Yeah, so I think this was a very interesting class. I learned a lot about life.

I saved a handful of my students' evaluations. For reasons you can read above, Anna was one of the selected few. 

While this post was triggered by the chance encounter with a former Living Skills student at the local coffee shop, it's his words I often return to: "and I don't think I would be friends with them if not for your Living Skills classroom". 

As an educator, we are blessed to meet so many amazing, young lives destined for greatness. I find it to be the most rewarding and yet heartbreaking part of the profession. While we rise with their joys and triumphs, it's the struggles that give us pause and make us question why. 

Anna was involved in a car accident coming home from college during the summer of 2007. She did not survive. She was 20. I've often meant to share Anna's essay with her parents. Today, somewhat out of the blue, I finally emailed her father. 

Enjoy your moments with your students. Don't hesitate to give their parents a call with good news. Take care of them, just as you would your own child. 

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