Feel Good Friday

15 Feb

“This is why we fight/Why we lie awake/This is Why/Why we fight/

Come war/Come the infantry/Come the archers of hell/This is why/Why we fight.”  —  The Decemberists

In June, among the rolling fields of Somerset County, New Jersey, the noise is constant but welcome: a chirping of birds and buzz-croaking of insects whose names we do not know, and laughter, and the swinging open of doors and murmur of groups of young men and women bursting out into the warm.  The weeks of my graduation approaching were like the weeks before the Super Bowl, a building up to some major event, that would be epic and grand, and signify triumph at the end of many, many months of hard work…years…a lifetime.  In the world where I grew up, graduation was something immense: a moment celebrated with lavish parties stock full of shrimp cocktail and hand-served salmon cakes.  Fathers of the graduates lit big cigars, and the mothers had one too many glasses of wine, raising toasts to their little babies of whom they were all so proud, who were bound for the Bucknells and Boston Colleges, or following in dad’s footsteps to Princeton.  It was the kind of celebrations more modest men would withhold for the coming of some major miracle: winning the lottery, say…or defeating the cancer that doctors said you’d never overcome.  It was also, sadly, a celebration of the inevitable, a guarantee.  At a school where 0% of students drop out, and only one or two kids get “the boot” every year for trying to sell nickel bags, or stealing 100 dollars from an unattended backpack, a high school diploma from a well-respected school was a “birth right” of acceptance freshman year, and timely payments, thereafter.  It didn’t need to be earned so much as “waited out.”  Of course with the waiting came some work, and turmoil, and challenges and struggles.  No man’s life is perfect.  But to celebrate the way we did, to have attended the parties where young men and women were treated as royalty for having maintained a B-average and played on a soccer team for four years with little other distraction…well looking back on it, it all seems a bit gauche.

Over 30 months have gone by since I began teaching at the school where I previously taught.  Over 2.5 years.  It was a new school (in it’s second year) and–in case you have never read my blog before–served students who were 16+ and still had minimal or no H.S. credit.  As a new school we struggled as staff and students to find our identity, and trying to do this while providing a fair and decent education to the students enrolled was probably an unfair thing for all of us.  The school was not perfect, but we lived up to our mission.  For the students we could get into the building, I truly believed we provided an education on par with the average city public school, although it was no different, not radical, which played a large part in my leaving this year.  But it was certainly a guinea pig situation for all of us.  And while guinea pigs are considered pets for some (I had two: Guzzle and Scratch!) most people associate them with experiments, and indeed many experiments do not net the same result one had hoped.

Despite coming into school behind, and despite the fact that the school meant to help catch them up was imperfect, I was fortunate enough to be in attendance a couple weeks back for the graduation of 17 young men and women (including my boy Nate) whom I had taught there.  Before a back-drop with the theme of “Oh the Places You’ll Go” (one of my all-time favorite books) they spoke about their moments of pride, listened as they were congratulated for a truly great accomplishment.  Then they walked across the hall, ate a buffet, and went off into the night.  Students who had every cause to celebrate big sat quietly, sipping soda in plastic cups, and taking pictures with their proud parents.  And quietly for me, it was a great source of pride too.

After congratulating the students, I bundled up against the cold, and made for the exits.  As I was walking towards the door, a young man named Joseph, who rarely spoke to anyone the entire time I knew him (but had a great sense of humor, and would always email me hilarious jokes, even if he wouldn’t say a word to me) approached me as I was reaching the door.

“Hey, Mr. Schmidt.” I heard the quiet voice behind me and turned.

Joseph was there with his hand already held out towards me.

“Oh, hey Joseph.”

“I just wanted to say thank you.  You helped me a lot.”

I couldn’t say honestly what Joseph felt I had helped him with. But here he was speaking to me, holding out his hand.

I shook it firmly. “You should be really proud of yourself, Joseph. What’s your plan now?”

“A computer technology program.”

I told him I thought he’d be great at that, and to keep in touch.

I walked out into the cold, swallowed hard, and went around the corner to my old haunt for a private celebration.

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