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Payoff

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

Of all the students I taught at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, one in particular stands out. I don’t remember noticing anything special about V. at first. For her first couple months in my class, she showed herself to be a bright young woman with an attendance problem. She could ace my tests but within the first six weeks of the school year she’d already been absent seven times and late six (in her freshman year, she missed something like 40 days). But her response to a class reading changed my impression of her, and set in motion a relationship of mutual appreciation that continues to this day.

The reading was from a young adult novel called “The Year of Impossible Goodbyes,” which tells the story of a Korean girl’s memories of the Japanese occupation. The excerpt I chose recounts the girl’s first day at a school, and the rage and humiliation she felt at being treated as an inferior and forced to speak Japanese. After the lesson, V., who is Mexican-American, asked if she could borrow the book. She returned it days later, gushing about how interesting she found it and how the story touched her.

After that, I had her hooked. She re-engaged in my history lessons and became my star student. She was not your traditional teacher’s pet, though. She didn’t raise her hand with the correct or thoughtful answer to every question. Instead, much of her intellectual work took place behind the scenes. In class, she sat wide-eyed when we watched scenes from “Ghandi” during a lesson about post-colonialism. Later on, she showed me a journal entry reflecting on the merits of civil disobedience as a mechanism for confronting injustices in her own life.

During a unit about World War II, she became fascinated by stories of holocaust resisters. On my recommendation, she read “The Book Thief,” by Marcus Zuzak, a story about a young girl in Nazi Germany who simultaneously learns to read while developing an awareness of the holocaust going on around her.

When we learned about apartheid era South Africa, V. was drawn to the struggle of Nelson Mandela. She was the only student I had who chose to enter an essay contest in which the prize was a trip to South Africa to meet him. She didn’t win, but her writing showed a strong understanding of the historical context in which he lived and the ideals for which he fought.

Around this time, I started talking with V— about her future. She expressed an interest in psychology and law. I pushed her to look into summer internships in order to build her college resume and expose her to new experiences. Together with the college counselor, I helped her apply to the “Sustainable Directions Summer Internship Program.”

The director of the program called me with questions about V—. They liked her personal statement but had concerns about her attendance history. The director asked me if I though V— would be reliable. I gave her my full vote of confidence, and V— was accepted into the program. When I told V— that she had to prove me right, she reassured me: “I got you, Mr. Lawrence.”

She was paired with the organization Dwa Fanm, and spent her summer helping out in an office dedicated to empowering abused women. During the summer, she developed an interest in trauma and recovery. She continued on as a volunteer.

At the end of her 10th-grade year, V. earned the highest score in the class on the Global Regents Exam (93). On the last day of the year, she handed me a letter of thanks. It is among my most treasured teaching artifacts.

I kept tabs on her as she entered 11th grade. She would stop by my room from time to time to keep me updated on her academic progress, and sometimes I’d recommend her readings (though her new English teacher had ably taken over that task for me). We had a memorable conversation one afternoon last year about how living in Brooklyn can be like being in Plato’s cave.

V. is now a senior and though I’m no longer around we keep in touch via email. In her college recommendation letter, I wrote that “in my 7 years of teaching, I have never met a student who loves learning about history more than [V.].” In March, I joyously received the news that she’d not only been accepted, but was the recipient of a $17,000/year scholarship to attend Manhattanville College. A couple weeks ago, she was named the recipient of a different scholarship that will allow her to attend John Jay, with the opportunity to transfer to a private 4-year school and graduate with minimal debt.

As teachers, we don’t always know what impact we have on students. I may have played only a small role in V.’s life, but it feels good to know that I recognized her potential. There was nothing inevitable about V. achieving these successes; she very easily could have been a chronic truant and eventual dropout, as happened to a few of my students. But through some lucky combination of her personal disposition and adult efforts to reach out to her, she turned it around.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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