After almost 40 years, a teacher tends to look back with satisfaction, frustration, nostalgia - and memories of that one most hopeless student. For me, among all the students in elementary and secondary school and on to college and graduate school, it was Stanley.
Stanley was in his mid-30s, a vile, vulgar, smelly man, whose miserable disposition was matched by his rotten teeth. The school was in the Middlesex County House of Correction in Billerica, Mass., and the class was for dropouts, now dropping back in to prepare for the high school equivalency exam, the GED.
Stanley had been an early dropout, from the fourth grade, without any formal education since he was nine years old. And he wasn't really preparing for anything. He came to class most days, but never with any assignments completed, never joining in class discussions, certainly not contributing to collaborative problem solving. Even when he cursed at me or a fellow inmate or the sheriff or life, it had nothing to do with the poem or the comic book or short story or painting we were discussing.
Stanley was hopeless and disgusting, and occasionally disruptive and frightening. But what was I going to do, throw him out? After all, he was incarcerated. And there was one glimmer of hope: He was there.
No matter how carefully you prepare - from the optimistic annual objectives and teaching strategies to those infernal daily lesson plans - a teacher realizes, and undoubtedly so does a parent, that being there, for each student, is the key.
We share a sense of what might have been: all those talented students with their ringing accomplishments; the lost souls, too, and what we failed to do for them. The names and faces dance before you, the near-Rhodes Scholars and near-Olympians, and hopeless ones like Stanley.
No greater joy
There is no greater joy in teaching than when the student returns years later to say, "Thanks for being there for me. I always knew you really cared."
The experienced teacher knows what is important - being there at the moment when you can make a difference in a child's life. It's often a planned moment, but probably just as often the unplanned, unexpected word that opens a whole new world of awareness and curiosity and confidence.
Especially with students like Stanley. Day after day he came to class, unprepared and uninvolved, perhaps to get out of his work in the laundry or too frustrated to go to his vocational air conditioning class. But at least he was there. I tried to engage him; he refused. The standoff was clear.
Then one day I asked the students to bring in a favorite piece of music. We'd listen to one another's selections and talk about what we heard and felt. Then, I hoped, we would write a few words, some sentences, eventually paragraphs and an essay. Was it my imagination, or did Stanley raise his head a bit, his eyes seeming to catch a sparkle?
No, I was not mistaken, because the next day Stanley brought in his response to the assignment, for the first time ever. He carried a recording of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," eager to tell his classmates, granted in the most graphic language, about the music and the musicians and Liverpool. About an hour into the class, I played my selection, Ravel's "Pavan for a Dead Princess." Stanley almost fell off his chair.
When the class ended, he rushed up to me. "That's the most beautiful music I've ever heard. Who was the princess? When did she live? Did Ravel know her? What else did he write?"
Talk about multiple intelligences. From that moment on ... well, the best way to say it is that Stanley became part of the serious academic work of the class and took the GED 10 months later. In reading and writing and math, he leaped astonishingly across the lost years to score above the 90th percentile in everything. This was vile Stanley, convicted for many crimes, once for manslaughter when his runaway rig killed the driver of a Volkswagen; vulgar Stanley, who started on the carnival circuit when he was 10, Stanley with no family, no education, no hope.
When he received his high school equivalency diploma, he asked me, "What's next?" A week later, he enrolled in the associate of arts degree program at Middlesex Community College, and I was privileged to be his freshman English teacher.
Just being there for all our children, all our students. Sometimes, even for those with the most obvious potential, it would seem to be fortunate that we were there at the right time.
But the bad ones, the hopeless ones? Over all the years, Stanley might have been the worst.
Then again, how close in this cycle of life and opportunity is the worst from the best? It's the teacher, and the parent, being there for the student, for the child, really caring, that is the crucial difference. Perhaps the only difference.
* Peter D. Relic, president of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, is a former superintendent of public schools.