The Future Before Us

“The future of the world is in my classroom today, a future with the potential for good or bad. Several future presidents are learning from me today; so are the great writers of the next decades, and so are all the so-called ordinary people who will make the decisions in a democracy. I must never forget these same young people could be the thieves and murderers of the future. Only a teacher? Thank God I have a calling to the greatest profession of all! I must be vigilant every day, lest I lose one fragile opportunity to improve tomorrow.” 
Ivan Welton Fitzwater

The start of another school year finds me reflecting on years past and, in particular, many students I taught during my eighteen years as a classroom teacher. Since leaving the classroom, thousands of young students I taught at one time have gone on to achieve many amazing things. I frequently hear from some who keep me posted on their careers and family lives. Some have gone on to become doctors and lawyers. Others are making a difference in the corporate arena. Many of my former students have gone on to careers in education themselves. Still others have enjoyed successful careers in service industries and the arts. One of my former student-athletes has been recognized as perhaps the best baseball pitcher in the world over the course of the past decade and another played in the NBA for many years. Most of these outcomes have not surprised me much; in fact, in many cases, I could have predicted the paths these young men and women would take. But, as a new school year approaches, I am reminded of another former student with whom I exchange letters each month. His post secondary journey took a different turn, one that none of us who knew him then would have predicted. This young man is currently serving a life sentence in prison for murder.

A recent post written by Ben Gilpin motivated me to write about this former student of mine. Ben wrote about how he felt when he learned a former student was diagnosed with cancer. I will never forget the day I learned that James (not his real name) had murdered someone. I was serving as a principal in Atlanta, several hours from where I had taught and coached James. One morning, I turned to page three of the Atlanta newspaper to see a mugshot of my former student staring back at me accompanied by an article chronicling the incident. If you had asked any of his teachers the chances that this young man would become a convicted murder shortly after high school graduation, the response would have been one of disbelief. Sure, this young man had been a bit of a class clown and he was not our valedictorian, nor anywhere close. He was, however, an intelligent, charming, fun-loving, affable young man who mixed well with all types of students at the diverse high school he attended. He was an excellent golfer who played for one of the most successful high school programs in the country and graduated with a respectable GPA. I actually counted him among my most memorable and likable students in our 11th Grade English class because he made us laugh but knew when to buckle down and focus on the work. Like each of us, he had his faults, but, overall, he was a delight to teach and coach. A future murderer? Not a chance!

I am ashamed to admit what I did when I learned the news of his plight: absolutely nothing. For over five years, no less. Then, while working with a colleague, I learned that he also had a former student who had been in prison for many years. Unlike me, this colleague, Bill, had kept in contact, writing letters, sending gifts when allowed, and even visiting his former student. Why had I been so quick to mention and even brag about my former students now in professional sports and in Hollywood, but so quiet about this young man, who I recalled fondly and who could probably use some friendly support? Bill helped me research how to contact this former student and I immediately sat down to write him a letter. That was three years ago and we have exchanged letters monthly ever since. I have re-connected with his parents and have made a visit to see him in prison back in Georgia. By re-connecting with James, I learned that this young man has done everything in his power to hold himself accountable for the horrific crime he committed in a moment of intoxicated fury many years ago. He has dedicated himself to his faith and his education and training while
behind bars and has expressed sincere remorse for his crime. Although nothing he can do will ever erase the pain the victim's family must live with every day, I cannot imagine a prisoner more remorseful, nor dedicated to making the most of a terrible situation. I have also learned a bit about myself and human nature since reaching out to this young man and have become a better person as a result:

  • Part of my initial motivation for writing to James was to cheer him up. I am not sure if it did, but I do know this: his letters always have that effect on me. Lesson/Reminder for us when working with our students this year: Make an extra effort to encourage your kids; they will be uplifted….and, in return, so will you.
  • In every letter James has written me, he has commented with intellect and keen insight on something about his current or past situation and/or something about my own current or past situation and/or something about current or past world events. I have honestly learned much from him through our correspondence. Lesson/Reminder for us when working with our students this year: The teacher does not hold all the knowledge in the classroom; we need to listen and learn from our students and not just those among them who are the teacher-pleasers. All our students have much they can teach us.
  • I remain ashamed that, for the most part, I dismissed James from my life when I learned he was in prison for murder. Since reconnecting, I realize that--despite this terrible crime--he has done everything in his power to atone for his behavior, serve others, and continuously improve. Lesson/Reminder for us when working with our students this year:  Never give up on any student. No matter how bleak their current circumstances might seem, expect the best and let them know you believe in them. Give them the gift of confidence--and second chances.
  • I often wonder if there is anything I might have done differently way back when James was at our school and in my class to prevent this tragic situation. In reality, I sincerely doubt that, but it still haunts me to an extent: Did I do everything I could to connect with him as a person and a student? Did I fully celebrate his successes and counsel him when he erred? Lesson/Reminder for us when working with our students this year: You simply never know what a difference you might make in any student’s life, including a difference you may not learn about until years later. Don't take what we do and our ability to influence our kids lightly.

As Fitzwater admonishes us in the quote above, we must be vigilant every day when working with young people, lest we lose one fragile opportunity to improve tomorrow. We often say that the possibilities are endless for the students we serve; typically, we mean that in a positive way, suggesting that they can become and achieve almost anything with the proper attitude, focused effort, and perseverance. Of course, the not-so-pleasant possibilities for our kids are endless as well, depending on the circumstances they face and the choices they make. Let’s cherish every minute we have while they are with us this year and do all we can to equip them for future success. The future before us? The future is right here, right now: every student sitting in our classrooms, counting on us to lead them to future success. Focusing on every student, every day is another way we Teach with Passion!

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