I remember my first interaction with Tom*. Our shadowing period had ended, and I was assigned to his class. He sat, not disrupting anyone, but not doing his work. I pulled my chair beside him and coerced him into completing his warm-up. As Tom wrote on the prompt for the day, he began to open up to me about his academic situation. “Miss,” he began, “I’ve already did this before. This is my second time in the 7th Grade, but they said if I pass all my classes, they will skip me up to the 8th.”
I listened intently. This was not an uncommon story. A lot of my students are overage, and profess the desire to buckle down, turn over a new leaf, and undo the stigma of them being unsuccessful. I went through my usual questions. Tom’s reasons for his lack of committal to his studies ranged from the work being hard and unrelated to life to the work being boring and undesirable to finish.
My mind fashioned an idea. I gave him a sheet of paper and told him to list everything that was holding him back. “Man that will take too much time and paper,” he exclaimed. “So be it,” I answered. “ Just try.” He wrote until he exhausted the topic. At this point, I took the paper, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash. With a stern look, I gazed into his eyes and stated, “Now that all your excuses are gone, you can move forward.”
He stared at me. I had shocked him. He tried to murmur a retort, but I cut him off. “On that paper is everything that has stood in your way. Pretend that trashcan is an ocean. I just sunk your excuses, and they are never to surface again.”
Tom sat in his chair dazed. I looked him over. The 15-year-old looked back, finger sweeping his long black hair from his eyes. The way he disregarded school by untucking his school shirt and refusing to censor his language made it obvious that he was a rebel. Yet I saw something different in him- a desire to be better. At that point, I made up my mind to help him reach his goal.
This job was easier said than done. Crumpling that paper was just a metaphor, and his hindrances did not really disappear. Often I would come to class and find Tom playing with classmates, no paper on his desk and an attitude of noncompliance. Sometimes when talking to him, I would get so frustrated I’d walk away and tutor another student. However, I always came back. I reminded him of our first day, and his goal. This usually made him work.
One day, while going through my normal motivation spiel, Tom threw his pencil and paper, slumped in his chair and shouted, “It doesn’t matter. They told me they aren’t going to move me up. This is pointless!”
I sensed his disappointment and felt a twinge of pain in my heart. I feared for Tom’s future. My whole intervention was riding on him advancing to the next grade. My tight rope I had holding him up had just snapped and I envisioned Tom falling out of my grasp back into his bottomless pit.
Then the unthinkable happened. A week later while working with a small group, I overheard Tom tell one of his good friends, “I don’t care if they don’t skip me up, I just don’t want to be in the 7th grade again next year.”
I swelled with happiness, and came to the realization that Tom was going to be okay. Our hard work was not in vain. I watched him transform before my eyes. He began to pull his weight in class and started coming to our after school program. His grades improved. My most proud moment was when the teacher announced that only seven people in his class had submitted the class assignment and Tom was on that list.
A couple of weeks ago, Tom looked at me with bright eyes and informed me that he had been accepted into the Partner’s Program. This is a program where overage 8th grade students can earn high school credits and enter high school the next year as 10th graders. He was moving up after all! I couldn’t contain my excitement. I rushed over to the Partner Advisor’s office to confirm the story. She answered, “Oh yeah, his hard work has paid off. He starts after the weekend.” Grinning, I ran back to find Tom, and we celebrated his achievement together.
Is Tom perfect? No. He still has setbacks, and I have to remind him that you only live once (YOLO), and he can’t afford to keep doing his mistakes over. I also tell him that excuses are the tools of incompetent used to build monuments of nothings. He is smart and worthwhile and needs to build his “monument’ with knowledge. But I could not be more proud of a student. For this reason, he is my starfish.
*Student’s name has been changed to protect his identity