I have been up since 4:15, (many of us are up at any given hour, with students in mind), thinking about T, one amazing, resilient little girl. She and her mom are one tough team, always smiling, always looking forward, even when life has dealt them many, many hardships. T is very bright. She's a struggling writer - not without ideas, but not yet able to format those ideas into a grade-level piece of writing. She's a candidate, however, for a wonderful program that helps children who qualify achieve entrance to private school, along with a scholarship. Sometimes that scholarship is a tiny fraction of the tuition, and sometimes it covers the tuition, uniform, texts and extracurricular experiences. (Two of my students are currently in 11th and 12th grade, having received at the end of their fifth grade year a full scholarship to esteemed private schools. When they run for president, I will let you know their names)! If granted the opportunity, these children, coming from impoverished circumstances, often with uneducated and limited English-speaking parents, have a chance rarely offered in feeder middle and high schools. That's not to say those attending local public schools don't go on to higher education and to success ... this is simply a path with guidance they otherwise would be unlikely to see.
I tell every one of my students that anyone who is valedictorian of their high school will have a meal with me at the Southern California restaurant of their choice. They ooh and aah ... I just want to build within my kids an appreciation for hard work and accomplishment. Graduating high school is the goal - achieving such high honor is icing on the cake. I hope they'll move on to higher education. I ask my kids to invite me to their college graduations, and that I will make every effort to attend.
All this said, as I prepare to help T begin her journey, I can't help but think of K, a student from my first K-1-2 class in 1992. She was tall, sophisticated, brilliant, wise, a role-model, and seven years old. Her picture is on the front of my portfolio. She is standing in front of the blackboard with a huge smile on her beautiful face, (yes, a blackboard ... I go back a ways) holding a piece of chalk. She'd written, "I have a great teacher. Her name is Ms. Stern." I wanted to keep that blackboard, but a picture sufficed. As teachers, these are the gifts we cherish. The notes, the words, the moment a child lets us know we've made a difference in their life.
K was with me again in 4th and 5th grade. I switched grade levels, and several of those early kids remained with me for two, three, four and five of their elementary years. She came to visit over her middle school years, when she attended the local feeder middle school, and then during her ninth grade year at Hollywood High.
I was invited by two of my students to the Hollywood High graduation several years ago. It's held at the Hollywood Bowl, a grand place for such an event. A fifth grader of mine was going on that same evening to watch her cousin graduate. She and her family held a seat for me in a front box of the bowl. I arrived late, just in time to see the graduating class take their seats on stage. A young woman stood to welcome us, and to introduce her friend, the valedictorian of Hollywood High School, K_____! I gasped, grabbed my fifth grade student's arm, and uttered with incredible pride that she'd been my student.
K's speech was wonderful. I sat with tears in my eyes, remembering that little 2nd grader. I had known then, and was proven to be correct, that she'd do great things. That night, my newly culminated fifth grader walked with me as I went to find K and her family. Pride was palpable as I introduced my two students, telling the older one how proud I was, how I felt I'd come full circle, and letting the younger one know how like K she was. That was very true.
The next year began, and on day one I shared the story of K with my kids. I told them I'd taken K to lunch. One of my wonderfully bright, articulate young men, J, asked if any of them would have the same opportunity as K to join me for a meal. I responded with a strong yes. He asked about being the valedictorian of his college. I responded that the restaurant choice would then extend to the entire state of CA. He asked about graduate school. The country, I told him. Pause. J cocked his head at me. "What if you're dead?"Pause on my end. "I'll put it in my will. Somebody will take you on my dime."
My father keeps telling me to get a will together. I don't have much, but I have several meaningful items. None, however, so meaningful as my promise of a meal for the superior effort and achievement of one of my students. I'm leaving a roll of dimes in my safe deposit box.
FYI - K is about to enter medical school. J is near the top of his class in high school. (I ain't dead yet, buddy)! And I heard recently that the little girl I sat with as K spoke at the Hollywood Bowl has moved far from Los Angeles, and continues to follow in K's footsteps.