He was an easy kid to like. He had a million dollar smile and the looks to match. He was part Italian, part black, and had an intriguing androgyny. He was destined to be a model. He was not the best student, but he never gave up. Paul (name changed) embodied a worldliness and empathy that many adults seem to lack.
These characteristics didn’t exist in isolation. I had seen many seniors blossom into little adults and fundamentally change who they had been up until that point. Not Paul. My wife had Paul in middle school and said he was the same way even back then. I worried about Paul last year, but he always seemed to find his way amongst the chaos. His family life was less-than-desirable and he was poor. He had some friends, but not many because he thought on a different plane than them. He had a girlfriend to whom he was devoted, though she frequently did not return that devotion. And yet, even on my worst days, Paul would step up and ask after me, my wife, and my daughter.
Struggle as he did, Paul still managed to triumphally walk across the stage at graduation; he plastered his award winning smile on his face as he threw his fist in the air. Through the following year, he still kept in touch to let me know he was alive. He wasn’t accomplishing his dreams, but as he said, he wasn’t doing so, yet. And the year marched on.
As my own, tumultuous year came to an end, I was excited to get back to center. I had plenty of pleasure and professional reading to do. I had conferences lined up. I had daily workout and diet plans. In short, I was going to engage in the self-care that all teachers need to do in the summers. Then I got a message: “Hey.”
Paul was reaching out. It had been a long time, so I was anxious to see what was going on. I asked if he’d been well. His response floored me.
“Not really. I have been going through a lot and idk how you are going to take this, but I have a drug problem…almost any pill that will get me high, mostly Xanax. I hate who I’ve become.”
For the next hour, I bounced between phone calls with him and The Healing Place. He was not aware that I called The Healing Place, he simply thought I was dealing with my young daughter. When I finally told him what I had done, he went silent. The silence went on for much longer than I was comfortable. Finally, he said, “I never expected this. Thanks for not quitting on me even though I am not your student anymore.” I reminded him that he will always be my student and I worked with him to make some next steps and contingency plans. As of now, we are waiting to hear back on a bed for him. Audibly holding back tears, Paul simply said thank you and hung up the phone.
Though this happened a week ago, I have been restless. I can’t shake my despair. But I am also reminded of a simple fact.
Every moment matters.
I knew that Paul liked me and continued to do so past graduation. What I didn’t grasp last week was that he truly respected me. It was I he reached out to for help. Not his girlfriend or parents. And while I didn’t ask why that was the case, I suspect it is because I always pushed him and never gave up on him, even on his worst days. He saw, and continues to see, me as someone who wouldn’t quit on him.
So this summer, amongst my pool visits and gym workouts, and amongst the quality time with my daughter and wife, I will be changing my professional focus. I want to learn more about the warning signs of future “failure” in school-aged youth. I know many of the academic indicators, but I would like to know more beyond that. I plan on rereading A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. I also plan on reaching out to valued members of my professional learning network.
I am unsure what I will learn. However, when we are in the classroom and are tired and exasperated, it is up to us to make sure the students know we care. We may know it, but they need to see it. They need to see it because, let’s be honest, they’re watching.
I recognize this post is mostly reflective, and the lesson I relearned because of Paul is not a novel one. All teachers know that our actions and relationships matter. Sometimes, we just need someone to remind us. I, unfortunately, had to be reminded by Paul. And while the reminder was a painful one, I remain optimistic because Paul is a man with a brilliant future. He simply hasn’t arrived, yet.
If you have any good resources, please leave them below in the comments or with the contact form. I am counting on you, and I will pay it forward in kind with those around me. There are too many Paul’s in the world.