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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why I’m not retiring…. not just yet

How many years ago was it? Perhaps too many to recall, but I can still remember him and his stories. Steve was a little scruffy ninth grader who sat in the back of the room at old Merritt Hutton High School, a guy in need of a hair cut and a new pair of jeans.

For the month of September, he slouched down in his desk and glared. In October he slowly warmed up. In November he started submitting work. Instead of “forgetting” his homework, he hesitantly passed it forward. Each piece of paper was as scruffy as he was: crinkled, pencil smears here and there, evidence of his breakfast on one corner.

In December, I noted the pattern: the essay on Charles Manson, the free write on the mysterious disappearance of a neighbor boy, the fictional murder of a neighbor. Death hummed through each of his pieces.

I don’t recall how many he submitted or how many I read, but enough to spot a pattern.

And worry.

In January I acted. After showing his short story of the death of a neighbor, I went to see Jerry, the counselor.

When Steve returned to class after meeting with Jerry, he wouldn’t look at me. And he wouldn’t reclaim his desk. He grabbed his books, dumped his notebook on the floor, and stormed out of the room, uttering “bitch” under his breath.

And that was the last time I saw Steve.

Hey, Steve, I’m still at it because of you. I owe you one, bud, and I don’t want teachers to shut students down like I did you.

Steve was long ago at the start of my profession, but Marty was on the other side of my career. While walking through the university commons on the way to teach my Methods class, I heard my name. “Quate? Ms. Quate, is that you?” Marty beamed when I stopped. “I’ve been looking for you. Someone told me that you were teaching at UCD and I wanted to thank you. You got me writing. Remember when we…” and for the next few minutes, I listened and laughed as he talked about memories of our tenth grade class, his stories jogging long buried memories. And then we both realized we were about to be late for class.

“Thank you, Ms. Quate,”  and he hurried off to class.

And, thank you, Marty, you too are why I’m still hanging in there.

Connor was never a student of mine, but a young teen who I knew well. I watched him cope with his father’s two year battle with brain cancer, each day taking a toll on Connor, each day moving him further away from caring about quadratic equations or the separation of church and state. Connor watched  his father lose his hair but not his sense of humor, and then two years later the humor was gone as well as his ability to walk, keep up his business books, or eat dinner with the family. And Connor no longer cared about the impact of carbon emissions or the symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird.

And no one at school knew of his loss. Walking through the halls like a ghost, Connor was enveloped in his pain, invisible to his teachers, his classmates, his counselors.

“I feel like a ghost.”

And, Connor, you’re another reason why I’m hanging in here. No one should be that unseen person who floats through the halls. Everyone needs to be seen, to be known.

I often joke that  I’ll retire when I have “it” all figured out, but the truth is that as long as I have the energy and the courage, I’ll hang in to make my retributions, to celebrate successes, and to honor those students who fade into the background, faceless yet in need of adults who care.

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