Barely 15 and very short for her age, Sylvia spoke English with a heavy accent, barely making eye contact. She was shy and uncertain but her way was clear. She needed to work to support her family. It was too difficult to come to school. Her mother worked at a local restaurant and helped her get hired, too. Even though her shifts were in the afternoon, she assured me that she was dropping out.
I'm not too proud to admit that I begged her to keep going. Her transcript spoke volumes of her intellect and determination. Even her standardized testing scores contradicted her poverty and lack of educational drive. But she maintained a resolution of acceptance. This was her destiny. It was better than before, but it wasn't her potential. I grieved.
I met Kylie when she stepped into my office one day to announce she couldn't do math and she'd just give up. Kylie was all of 14 years old. She stood 5 feet tall, 80 lbs. soaking wet, 20 of those sheer attitude. Her hair was dyed a deep black with a hint of blue, teased impossibly high. She wore black skinny jeans that barely hung to her frame, piercings in the most surprising places on her face, and wide, black make-up lined her eyes. With nervous energy, she curled her bottom lip to her tongue, sucking on her lip jewelry. She was an angry and hurt little girl, hiding behind her facade. Her belligerence was rather endearing but I doubted she'd stick around for long. That year, she earned less than 1/7 of the required credit for the year. She gave up before she even started.
Heather was 17 when she came to me. She was living with her boyfriend, 7 months pregnant, disowned by her family, and 900 miles from home. She was struggling, off center, and unfocused. The finish line was looming but she just couldn't hold on. She was feeling alone and confused. She disappeared right before graduation.
I don't mind being forgotten. I don't need to be remembered or loved by my students. But I do want them to remember that somebody believed in them. Somebody cared about them. Something stirred in their souls and they were reminded that they are Someone. A Child of God, divinely created with purpose and love.
This week I spent time with Kylie. She's 4 years older and still wearing skinny jeans. On bad days she lines her eyes like a raccoon and sporadically wears her face jewelry. She's gained confidence and beauty. Her hair is a natural brown and her smile reaches her eyes these days. Things are still bad at home but she's moving ahead and making goals despite her family life. She carries an accordion file where she meticulously keeps all of her work and plans her credit. She is a delightful young woman who still carries hurt but has discarded most of her anger. She chose to not carry such a heavy burden. She also discovered she can do math.
The same day I was informed I had a visitor in reception. It was Sylvia, taller, more clearly spoken, and still beautiful. But the most marked difference was her self-confidence and determination. It changed her presence so much that I had a difficult time reconciling the image of the uncertain 15 year old girl with this confident 20 year old woman. She finally believed in herself. She came to tell me. She was ready to harness her own destiny. In her own way, she invited me to travel her road with her. She remembered I believed in her.
Serendipitously, I ran out of propane on my barbecue and lugged my container into a gas station for filling. The clerk and I looked each other up and down and she tentatively asked how we knew each other. My brain dug up that her name was Heather and I knew her when she was pregnant. We deduced that I was her counselor and slowly reconstructed our history. Before reconstruction, however, I remembered that I cared about her before I forgot her and I also felt sorrow when she disappeared.
She was now 32 years old, married to the boyfriend, and mother of 5. She remembered I cared. She didn't remember that her past doesn't define her future. She didn't know that she could make choices and change. But this time she believed that I remembered those things.
Six weeks later she placed a piece of paper on my desk and heaved out a big sob. It was her diploma. She saw her potential, even for a brief moment, and walked towards it.
My question changes. Do I make difference? The answer becomes moot.
I still believe.
. . . begins with the first step.