About 30 years ago, I was teaching high school in Woodward-Granger, a small district outside of Des Moines, Iowa, when a transfer student named Dan* started school there. Dan was in my world history class. He was a likeable kid. Kind of ornery but not in a mean way. He was smart ornery, if that makes sense. He was quick with a comeback and knew how to make it a zinger. We hit it off right away.
I soon found out this was his sixth or seventh school in four years. His family was constantly moving. He was doing above average work for me, but he was failing other classes.
One day after class I asked Dan why he was not doing well in other classes. He told me he was bored in those classes and didn’t really care. We talked about not caring and his future. He said it was hard to think beyond that day.
I told him he was doing well in my class. He said he was challenged in my class and felt safe there. Interesting answer.
Later that year, Dan confided his dad was alcohol dependent. He was a mean drunk but had not physically harmed Dan or his mother. They moved often because his dad couldn’t hold a job.
The next year in March, Dan came into my room before school with a blackened right eye. He handed me his class drop papers and his textbook. I asked why he was leaving. He answered that his dad had finally hit him, and that he had dropped his dad in his tracks. I did not doubt Dan.
At 17 years old, he said he was leaving home and getting a job. Many years later, he would remind me of the advice I gave him before he left: “Don’t become the man you hate.”
As I signed his form, I told him good luck and that I hated to see him leave, but I understood. I walked to the school office to report the conversation.
Fast forward to June 2016. A message from Dan pops up on my LinkedIn page. He wants to tell me what happened to him.
It turns out that when he left Woodward, he fell in with a tough crowd in Des Moines. He was street-smart enough to know that was a dead end, so he decided to get his GED.
He joined the Navy and spent four years working electronics. While based in Florida, he used his GI benefits to get an engineering degree. He told me that was when he also started drinking—a lot.
When he got out of the Navy, he got a great job writing software programs. He got into a short relationship and had a daughter. He lost his job and access to his daughter due to drinking. That pushed him over the edge, and he really tied one on.
After a week or so, Dan told me, he woke up one day in a two-bit motel. He got up and looked in the mirror. Dan said I was looking back at him saying, “Don’t become the man you hate.”
At that point, he made a promise not to become that man. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous for help. He had been sober for over five years when I got the message. He wanted to let me know he was a survivor and what my words had meant to him. I was speechless.
He moved back to Iowa and asked if we could meet. We have seen each other many times since. He is still sober. Three years ago he met a wonderful woman and remarried. Two years ago they had a baby son.
As educators, we do not always know the impact we may have on others. When Dan reminded me of what I had said, it all came flooding back. Thankfully, words and actions that come from a place of love and kindness can be remembered forever.
*Name has been changed to protect the student’s identity.