I’ll never forget the day I found him sitting in my office with his head buried into his arms resting on my table. Even with his hood over his head, I knew exactly who the student who landed in my office was... again
Over the years, my office was frequently his sanctuary as angry outbursts would land him in conflict with both students and adults. He slowly learned violent outbursts, both verbally and physically, never really resulted in anything positive for him. So on this day, he proactively brought himself to the place where he knew he could vent, be transparent, cry without shame, and share the inner workings of the emotions racing through his mind.
“Hey man, what’s up?” I broke the silence to see if I could get his face to rise from the cradle of his arms, but he didn’t budge. Under the hood of his sweatshirt was long, unkempt hair that often covered his face. The hooded sweatshirt was another layer of protection from the world. It wasn’t days or months, but rather years of me slowly chipping away at the walls he’d placed around him to not let anyone near emotionally. Daily interactions over the course of months and years to get us to this point where he would actually open up with me.
“I did it again. I could hear them making fun of me. So instead of losing my sh*t, I just came here,” he finally offered up.
“Good work. You know you are always welcome in here whether I’m here or not,” was my only solace.
“I’m just f***ing sick and tired of dealing with their crap. Why are people so stupid? Why can’t they just leave me alone?” he continued. “I’m really trying to learn how to ignore them, but it is so hard.”
I pushed back into his thoughts, “Don’t you think by removing yourself and coming to my office is progress? It actually shows you are rising above their effort to bait you. You are winning the game by proving you won’t let them push your emotions like they’ve done before.”
At this point in our conversation, his head was still buried into his arms and I’ve yet to see the whites of his eyes. This was how most of our relationship-building sessions progressed. And, his next comments were not out of the norm either.
“I just don’t know why I should even keep trying. I’ve got nothing to live for. I hate my life,” he finally offered.
“Dude, you know I don’t like that kind of talk because you know it’s not true. You’ve got incredible talents, are super smart, and have a huge life ahead of you,” I quickly tossed back into the top of his hood. “In fact, I can see you heading off to college, studying computer science, and becoming one of those tech geniuses the world depends on.”
As principals, we can all recall moments you’ll remember forever, which is probably why I’m writing about this now. This was one of those moments. His head popped straight up from the sanctuary of his ams and he looked right at me and asked, “What did you just say?”
I quickly responded, “I said you will go off to college, study computer stuff, and be super important one day.”
“Why would you say I can go off to college? No one has ever said that to me before.” His heartbreaking words were forever etched into my memory banks.
What most of the students and adults didn’t know about this young man, beyond their perceptions of an angry, wayward, and volatile person, was the context of his life. He was born into poverty, dysfunction, addiction, and hopelessness. His view of the world was unlike most of his peers and certainly the adults. But yet, here he was, dropped into our K-12 system and the daily rat race of a six-period day. And adding more stress to his already fragile state, surrounded by other students where family dinner was normal and college wasn’t about if, but where.
We spent the rest of the conversation that day talking about what is possible in his life. From his interests in working on computers to getting a job at Best Buy, to continuing education options and how to find scholarships, we hit it all. This wasn’t a short conversation by any means, but was worth every minute of my time as principal of a large comprehensive high school.
I’m not writing this blog to say I saved his life that day, because that’s not the case. I’m writing this blog to highlight the important role relationships play in the system. Kids need caring adults who take the time to invest in their lives. Brick and mortar schools have always provided that space and countless opportunities. Relationships mattered then, and they matter even more now. What keeps me awake right now, is knowing that our kids, like the one in this story, are hurting because of the loss of face-to-face connections and relationships with the adults in the physical safety of their schools.
As I look to the future of our education system, I challenge all the thought leaders, policymakers, and educational leaders to think differently as we redesign our new approach to serving kids. Whether we are still operating under a distance learning model, blended model, or back to some version of brick and mortar, can we prioritize relationships above all else? Can we build everything around creating time for students and adults to find, build, and sustain meaningful relationships that create hope for everyone involved?
Until then, teachers, assistant principals, principals, counselors, and the army of other adults in the system are doing their best to connect virtually with kids. It’s not ideal, and certainly not good for everyone involved, but it is our reality. Relationships above all else should be the driving force in our efforts right now.
What happened to my student? A few years later, he happened to help me at Best Buy when I was shopping for a new printer. He was proudly wearing the standard blue “Best Buy” shirt, had a fresh haircut that unveiled hope-filled and prideful eyes, and couldn’t wait to tell me all about the classes he was taking at the local community college.
I wonder now, could I have had the same connection and relationship with him in this new virtual world?