A couple of years ago, I had a heavy-set, lighter-skinned student who spaced out for about half my class every day. He twiddled his pencil, shaved it down til the disposable paint cluttered the desk along with his extra-large binder. He did most of his multiplication on his head, which was unfortunate because I asked for it on looseleaf to turn in by the end of the period. He applied for one high school, four back-ups. He turned to me one day after school during one of my “You better be here so you can get your grades up” sessions and said, “Mr. Vilson, I want to fix cars.” His father used to roll to parent-teacher conferences with a phone as big as his face and a 4-wheeler as big as an NYC studio. I’d give him and his father warm and cold feedback. I’s still think he was smarter than the sub par quizzes and performance tasks that he handed in.
He got a letter sometime in spring that told him where he was going to high school. He looked up at me and said, “Oh my god, YES, I’m so happy!”
It was an odd thing to hear coming from his mouth because I still have a bit of conservatism in me. The idea of assuring that my students have the opportunity to go to a good high school and then to a good college lights a fire in my belly. I already had former students attend MIT, John Jay, and Syracuse University (wink, wink), but a silent and large part of me wanted students to be happy with themselves and who they would become. I saw how schooling, no matter how good we as educators thought ourselves to be, really isn’t for every single body. But, for the time being, it seemed to work for 90% of the students I worked with, so why play with the odds?
Oh, because this student was happy as hell with his choice for a career and technical school. My ideals were no match for his real happiness.
As students start to find out where they’re going to high school, it’s important for middle school educators to not look down on the choices they’ve made for themselves. Success looks so different for all types of kids. We don’t all need to be at an Ivy League school, though, if we meet the criteria, they should be given a look based on our credentials. The conversation about high school, and schooling as a whole, doesn’t often intersect with the conversation with the pursuit of happiness. I respect the differences, and I don’t see myself changing my overarching mission of putting a wedge in as many doors as possible for my students.
I also know I have to respect their smiles, their wishes, and their agency, even when some people still look down on the choice my student made for himself.