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Last Bell - Pride and Regret


How I reached one student—and didn’t reach out to another.


By Walter Bowne

Walter Bowne (right) asked Ari to write about himself. Now Ari writes game reviews for the school newspaper, and the whole school knows him.

Normal Y. Lono

As soon as I signed in for Back-to-School Night, a parent from last year cornered me in the office. “You did what no other teacher has ever done,” he told me—and the entire high school office. “I don’t know how you did it, but you turned my boy’s life around. Thank you so much!”

I shook his hand and thanked him. But all I did was to encourage his son Ari to believe in himself. After all, no child should leave school feeling worthless.

That’s part of my English lesson plan every day: to get my students excited about life and its limitless opportunities. And the way to do that is to make each student feel like the most important student in the class. What’s the alternative? A life made stale because of unrealized dreams and underutilized potential?

What I did with Ari is something I try to do with every student. On the first day of school, I assign an essay: Tell me what you are. Ari wrote an essay titled “Always a Gamer.” The essay had potential, even if it was two days late. (So are some of my bills.) I encouraged him to write game reviews for the school newspaper. And since I was the advisor, I had some clout with the editors.

It worked. Ari found worth as a game   reviewer, writing a review for each edition. Each column had his picture. Now the whole school knew him. His writing improved. His English grade improved. He got excited about school, and, according to his father, life.

It’s not that I fill students with false platitudes, like, “You’re all just so perfect!” But I do want them to look into the mirror and like whom they see, and if they don’t like the reflection, then do something meaningful about it.

Too many students leave school feeling depressed and dispirited because they’re merely average: no award, no honor roll, and no homecoming queen. But a marvelous life can be had, regardless of grades and social prestige. 

Sure, the point of school is to get a well-rounded education. But education occurs every second of the day—and if those seconds are sold to the devil of quiet desperation, all is lost. 

Last year, I saw this land of the lost during Behavior Mod, which means in-school suspension but with an Orwellian moniker.

The students mostly sit with their heads down, angry and valueless. Sometimes I offer my ten- minute lecture. But what can I do?

One time I told a repeat offender to read Newsweek’s coverage of Barack Obama. Surprisingly, he sat on the radiator and read for ten minutes.

But then an administrator arrived and told him to sit in his seat. Perhaps this administrator could have asked: “So what are you reading?” (That is the point of school, right? Reading and thinking?) It would have provided a catalyst. The student would have felt empowered, worthy, maybe for the first time. Instead, the boy threw down Newsweek, slumped back in his chair, and put his head down—like it’s always been down.

I wanted to say, “I’m sorry, but you still have worth. I believe that.”

But I didn’t. And so I’m sorry that his folks won’t be shaking my hand anytime soon.

Walter Bowne teaches English and journalism at Eastern High School in Voorhees, New Jersey.

 

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29-May-09


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