A teacher teams up with her principal to help the school’s most at-risk boys.
Miguel was 14 when I met him. He’s short, and has the kind of hair that makes a mom want to ruffle it. He tells me that the guy who supervises the kitchen where he washes dishes is a good man. “Sometimes he lets me do my homework,” he says. But Miguel’s father is not a good man. He beats his son when he can’t make rent on the one-bedroom apartment they share with eight other men and boys—none of whom Miguel knew before he and his dad crossed the border illegally when he was 12.
Clark is another freshman at the high school where I teach. He has a protection order against his father, an active alcoholic who abandoned his family but shows up occasionally at school to berate his son. The faculty has been briefed on what to do if his father appears (usually in a black Jag parked near the bus lanes). Clark is surly and doesn’t like adult men. It’s easy to see why.
Sadique, about the same age as the others, doesn’t talk much. His dad shot his mom one morning as they all sat around the breakfast table.
Elmer, Sebastian, and Tony don’t have fathers they’ve ever called Dad.
The fifteen boys involved in the program for at-risk students in my suburban Atlanta high school cross all socio-economic lines. What they share is a distrust of male authority figures and a failure rate of five or six classes in the first semester of their freshman year. Surprisingly, though, if you compare these boys to others from across the country, they’re not that unusual. More boys fail 9th grade than any other.
Two years ago, the principal at my school decided to try a new approach to helping these boys. He assembled the school’s lowest-scoring 9th graders in one class and decided that he and I would teach the class together. Our plan was simple: We would believe in them.
We are an unlikely pair. He’s 6-foot-6. I’m 5-foot-3. He has a Ph.D and began his work as an educator in a last-chance school for teen boys. I’d taught in a private Quaker school and spent decades in public schools teaching literature and directing plays. We’re an odd couple, but we’re equally determined to help these forgotten boys reach manhood with a shot at success.
Before our first class, the principal and I went shopping for fresh composition books and a supply of pencils. On the ride back, I recounted a line from Desmond Tutu that I believe made me a better teacher. “We can be human only together.”
“Great,” the principal said in his to-the-point manner. “That can be the first thing we all write in our journals.”
The boys weren’t so quick to buy into what we were doing. Doubt and suspicion permeated the room. The principal assured them that every kid was starting with a clean slate and that we weren’t there to judge them. He told them we knew they were smart kids who just lacked the focus and confidence to show it off.
The boys looked around. They knew who they were in class with. They were the kids who slept, mouthed-off, cheated, and never had their homework or their books. They punched people randomly and spent days in in-school suspension. The principal mentioned all of this, but he also said that he knew why it happened. Life at home wasn’t good—there was violence, poverty, and uncertainty. Many of the students didn’t have a dad at home. The principal assured them that they were safe at school—that they now had a soft place to land.
He went on to say: “What you need to take home from this class today is the lesson that I love you. We love you. We teach kids because we love kids. This is a class about the kind of caring love where there’s an exchange of respect and honesty. That’s where we’ll start. Are you with us?”
We began to call them “our boys” and started to notice kids outside the class approached us about how to register for it. That first year, eleven boys remained in the class, and nine started the next year. The principal and I often talk about the boys we’ve lost a long the way. One punched a kid on the bus. Another was handcuffed in the principal’s office for possession of drugs with intent to distribute. Two others dropped out when they turned 16.
Now in our third year, Miguel is still right there with us, Sadique talks all the time, and Tony blocked the principal’s dunk attempt on the basketball court one day. The boys we’ve had continuously are more likely to be failing three courses than six, and we’re still believing in them because we know one thing for sure: Miguel heard the principal say he loved him that day. At the end of the first year, Miguel wrote in his journal that no one—certainly no man—had ever told him that before.
While reading Miguel’s words, I nodded knowingly. That’s the way the principal had hooked me, too. When he looked at those lost boys and said, “I love you,” every one of them reacted, as I did. His courage to say that to a group of young guys with curled lips, burgeoning biceps, and failure raging through their veins convinced me yet again that when a good man says he loves you, amazing things can happen.