Starting with this post, in addition to interviewing and observing teachers, I’m also going to be talking one on one with students in order to hear their stories. Who are our students? What does their education mean to them? What effect do teachers have on them?
Leo is a gangly, extremely friendly 17-year-old white kid with a buzz cut and diamond earrings; he agrees immediately to an interview, shaking my hand and helping me set up chairs outside of class. He lives nearby with his parents and two older sisters. “My mom made me come here,” he says with a shrug when I asked how he chose the school. “It was the closest one, and it’s free.”
He freely admits he was not always a devoted student. “In fifth grade I was the bad kid,” he says. “I’d steal things, candy bars, I was the leader of a little group who’d steal.” But in 6th grade, his parents sent him to a Catholic school, St. Mark’s. “That’s what changed me to who I am now. They whipped me into shape, they set up strict rules and guidelines. In 8th grade I had this teacher who sat me down and said, this isn’t a game any more. You’ve gotta get your stuff together, high school is not a joke. I was like: I’ve gotta be on top of my game!”
Still, as a 9th grader, he wasn’t at his best. “I was that annoying freshman that would run around the halls,” he admits. But by the time he was a sophomore, he started to change. “I started liking girls,” he explains. “They don’t like that stuff.” Then, in 11th grade, he joined the Explorers, an LAPD program that made him realize he wanted to be a police officer. “I realized, I like to be a leader,” just as he was back in fifth grade when he was running his little crew of thieves. But now, “I want to be a role model. I want to do something good. I mean, I can put on a suit and tie and be a realtor, but that’s not how I see myself.”
Unfortunately, the Explorers group fell apart after a while because it couldn’t retain enough members. Leo continues to channel his energies into the volleyball team, which is his passion, and will probably be his ticket to a college scholarship. Right now, he’s hoping to attend Concordia Irvine or UC Merced. At 6’3”, though tall by any normal standards, “I’m too short to make UCLA’s team,” he says, philosophical. After college, he plans to go to the police academy.
For Leo, Dennis’ class has played an important role in his evolving understanding of himself. “I’m learning who I am,” he says. “That’s what he told us on the first day.” For Leo, having the chance to choose his own topics has been liberating. At winter break, he brought home his class notebook and began re-reading it. “I just looked at all I’d done. I saw a person other people don’t see.” Reading through the account of his days made him see himself in a new way. He was struck by how often he had worried about others and helped them out. For the first time, he caught a glimpse of himself as a person of compassion and generosity—a person he had not known was there. “When people look at me and hear my name, they think oh, that’s the athletic kid who can be a douchebag. I know I can be a cocky asshole sometimes. But I’m a gentleman. I put friends and family before anybody else.”
Writing in class about his own life has made him take himself more seriously. “I’m not a dick,” he says with a grin, as if even he is surprised. He knows there are challenges ahead but feels confident that he’s ready for them. “High school is like a river,” he tells me. “You have your fast moments and your slow moments. As long as you don’t tip over the boat, you’ll be fine.”
What strikes me about Leo is his authentic personal connection to the class and to his own writing. As we think about what “effective” means, we tend to pigeonhole lessons in terms of the curricular skills they impart. Here, though, Leo reminds me that writing is ultimately a tool of conscious thinking and self-awareness. I think of the Robert Frost quote, “I write because I realize things I didn’t know I knew.” When a young person realizes he is actually a good and caring person, a realization he may carry into the rest of his life and that may guide his career and life decisions, what is the ripple effect of one person coming to see himself as a positive force? Will his actions change toward others? If seeing himself as a good person makes him become a good cop, how do we measure the lives he may save or change?
How and when will we ever be able to measure the effect of seeing yourself in a new way?