Much time has passed and many miles have been travelled since the occasion of your high school graduation. I still fondly recall you beaming with pride as you walked across the stage to receive your diploma and shake hands with superintendent MacDonald. Oh the relief you must have felt, diploma in hand and goal achieved. Afterwards, what a good reason you had for celebrating with your parents, family, and friends.
In route to becoming the Class of 1980, my heart was warmed each time you and your classmates overcame a challenge. The private victories that propelled each of you toward commencement were well known to me, as were the defeats. That is why I, a first time school counselor with his first graduating class, was so elated when every member of your class graduated on time.
I vividly remember the first time you came to my office. It was early September of your ninth grade year—1976. Your teachers and classmates had mentioned you—a gentle, friendly, tall, and somewhat effeminate boy—to me as someone to keep an eye on. So that day, when you crossed my office door, I was ready (sort of). You had just failed an Algebra 1 exam. With tears flowing, you said, “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, provided comfort, and helped you regroup. The few Kleenex I had—I was not ready—went fast.
Soon, my office became your frequent destination. To each visit, you brought tears and I provided a friendly ear, reassuring words, and Kleenex (by the case). When you failed tests, tears flowed. Bullied or teased, tears flowed. Every visit had a “Mr. Weston, I try, I really do.” I listened, nodded, and doled out Kleenex
Your life changed, when, late in the first semester of your sophomore year, the humiliating incident in the locker room occurred. Legal action was swiftly taken and protections provided. But listening, nodding, and reassurances I knew would no longer suffice. The damage from the incident would linger and had to be dealt with. That is why during one of the many meetings that your parents, you, and I were having, I proposed referring you for psychological services and home study. For the first time, an “I don’t fit in here” accompanied your all too familiar, “I try, I really do.” Your parents and I agreed with both statements.
Well Kevin, you know the story. From that point on, you did more than try. With the help of psychological services, you came to terms with the incident. Soon after, when we formed a team to look at your academic and social functioning, your cooperation led to several breakthrough insights—dyslexia, poor emotional regulation, limited coping strategies, and inadequate adaptation skills for academic subjects. The team determined you to be bright and capable but lacking certain skills. Armed with those insights, the home study that I thought could be a waste of time, turned out to be a godsend. Accommodations were made, necessary skills mastered, course content learned, and exams passed. The following Fall, when school began, academic successes soon followed.
From then on, your visits to my office became more about strategies, tactics, and problem solving. Favorable progress reports replaced tears; portfolio items with passing grades replaced Kleenex. Your action-plan and the accommodations it made possible for you to really try to fit in—somewhat but enough.
Yes Kevin, your path to graduation had more challenges than the paths taken by your classmates. Your path had more lessons to learn. That is why, as you walked across the stage to get your diploma, the sense of accomplishment, relief, and celebration you felt were so sweet. Your classmates and teacher who honored your accomplish with a heartfelt applause would have benefited from some Kleenex, but the only Kleenex I had were soaking up the tears of admiration flowing down my cheeks.
Kevin, I am proud beyond words of what you did. This letter is testament to that fact. However, as you will now read, it is but part of the story.
Your life changes changed my life. Watching you encounter and overcome your challenges, made me aware of how difficult school can be for students. After seeing your difficulties, everywhere I looked were students struggling to overcome equally daunting challenges. Most of them, unlike you, do not succeed. I did what I could, but it was not enough. My conclusion? The educational system we have only works well for some students and teachers. Moreover, the system is impervious to change. So attempts to make the system work for more students and teachers will inevitably find friction, frustration, and failure.
This understanding has been my constant companion and source of passion since our time together. I carried it with me to nearly every state capitol, Washington DC, three-dozen countries, two technology companies, and several universities. As I did, every day I woke up thinking about you and other students for whom the educational system does not work. I spent my days working to create an education system in which all teachers are empowered and all students are educated well. Each night, before I go to sleep I reflect on what I did that day to make this dream come true.
Kevin, when I needed a teacher, you were mine. You taught me that trying, really trying might help a student survive, but if the student does not fit the system of which he is a part, then his path will be a tearful one. Kevin, I pledge to keep working to create a system that fits all students and works for all teachers. As I do, memories of you are in my heart.
With respect and gratitude,
Note: This is the 11th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.