One Foot in Front of the Other

I sat next to David among the cluster of desks that made a semi-circle in the portable classroom. Our charter high school was a collection of temporary classrooms, the old ones other schools no longer wanted. The majority of our student body consisted of students other schools no longer wanted as well. To start David’s student success meeting, his English teacher explained what was needed to pass her class. David’s eyes widened; there was a lot to do. The counselor took her turn, explaining the courses needed to graduate and the missing credits from years past. David had failed five classes back when school was just a place where he showed up. He’d have to attend night classes at the local community college, cutting into his hours at work. The principal sat silent as he glanced at his phone. All eyes gradually drifted in my direction. It was my turn to put a bow on all of this.

I was the dean of students, a title that meant nothing. It was respect that mattered. Kids don’t care about a title, especially when someone tries to hide behind one. People asked me what I did as dean of students. In my mind, it was my job to help everyone do their best. I greeted students in the morning, watered the plants, organized school events, helped coach the soccer teams, taught classes if a teacher called in sick. I did what I could to make the school a place people wanted to be. My best achievement in the eyes of some might have been when I miraculously repaired the air conditioning.

I attended lots of student success meetings like this one. The goal was to ensure David’s senior year would be his last in high school. He and I first met when he was sent to my office — for a while he was a regular visitor. He liked to joke around in class; sometimes he went too far and pissed somebody off. That’s when he got sent to me. At first I struggled with kids who got kicked out of class. I was in a hurry to, you know, do something about it. I found that a rush to judgment did nothing but exacerbate the situation. I learned to be patient, hear kids out, to gather the whole story. If they did something wrong, we’d discuss the natural consequences of their actions. I didn’t want to punish students, I wanted them to learn. I found suspensions didn’t teach them anything so we created a space for people to talk. As the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire said, “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.”

Instead of sending kids home, we asked them to stay longer so they could participate in what we called restorative conferences. It wasn’t fun for anyone at first. Suspensions were much easier, and unlike detention students didn’t just sit there; they had to talk with those who were involved and reflect on their actions. The adults listened, and in the end we all gained empathy and understanding. It was messy, but I felt our approach to discipline actually worked.

David and I, for instance, had a run-in the previous year. Our school had a rule; no blue or red clothes, no sports teams apparel either. It was a stupid rule, but there was a reason for it I suppose. In the past kids had fought over who was from where; identifying with colors they thought defined who they were, even though they had much more in common than not. East San Jose could be a dangerous place and students represented the dynamics of the area. To avoid the situation entirely, the school banned colors. It was my job to enforce it. One day during lunch I asked David to take off his blue flannel.

“Other kids wear blue,” David said. “Why you messing with me?”

“I’m not messing with you,” I said. “I do this to everybody.”

“No you don’t, look at her.” He nodded at a freshman girl wearing a blue San Jose State shirt. “She’s wearing blue. You’re not saying shit to her.”

“It’s a college shirt. It can be a color if it’s a college shirt.”

“Oh she’s cool cause she’s going to college, but if I wear a blue Pendleton then I’m a gangster. That it?”

“Look man, I don’t make these rules. Just take off the flannel.”

“Fuck off.”

David stormed off as students in the quad turned in my direction. I guess some would say that type of behavior warranted a suspension. It didn’t feel great on my end, but I knew there was more. Later that day I invited him for a restorative conference in my office. He wasn’t in a hurry to talk about it. He sat there enraged, staring at the floor until he finally looked up.

“You just think I’m a gangster, don’t you?”

My heart sunk — I’d insulted a kid over a rule. I didn’t give a shit about the blue flannel. I did care that I had made him feel that way. That he believed that’s who I thought he was.

“I don’t think that,” I said. “I think you’re one of the best kids at our school.”

The conversation was short, but it changed things. A suspension wouldn’t have done that. He started stopping by my office, not because he’d been kicked out of class but just to talk. People began to think I was a mentor to him. In my eyes I was learning more from the seventeen-year-old kid than he was learning from me. I admired how he treated people with respect, how he shook hands with adults visiting campus, and how he went out of his way to include shy kids in his circle of friends. He had a loud, joyful laugh that echoed down our school’s outdoor hallway. He cared about his girlfriend, Angela. He carried her books and opened doors for her. It wasn’t a macho sort of thing, more old-fashioned chivalry. He was a good kid who had messed up for a little bit, but he’d grown, matured. And here we were telling him what life was all about.

Everyone at the student success meeting waited for me to speak. I turned to David.

“We all know you can do this,” I said. “I know it must seem daunting. But just put one foot in front of the other and you’ll get there. If you need anything, we’re here to help.”

David nodded in agreement and leaned forward to speak. But before he could say anything, the principal interjected. “We’ll see. We’ve heard this all before.”

David’s mouth closed tight, his words cut off, his thoughts broken. His shoulders slumped forward as he leaned back in his chair. The principal went into detail about David’s academic history and other chances he’d been given. Chances that had fallen flat. Anger built in my stomach as the principal ended the meeting and everyone filed out of the room. David and I spoke briefly in the parking lot and I could see the pain in his eyes. I wanted to tell him to forget it, that the principal didn’t know shit, but my words failed me. David got in his car and left.

I picked up a case of beer on my way home that evening. I wondered how many other people in David’s life had doubted him — if he ever had someone tell him how great he was. I drank a beer in my living room as dogs barked at a thief breaking a car window a block away. I thought about the times people doubted me, about those who still did. I regretted not saying more during the meeting. I found a faded index card sitting on the coffee table and scribbled a note.

The next morning I stood at my normal place by the front gate, shaking kids’ hands as they entered school. David arrived with Angela and I gave him an envelope with the index card inside. At some point, he read my poor handwriting on the card. It said, Six months until you graduate. I believe in you. Later that day he found me between classes and shook my hand and gave me a hug. Water formed in the corner of our eyes and we left it at that. As the year progressed I slipped him similar notes, Only four more months until you graduate, then three, then two… All with the same message below it, I believe in you.

We grew closer as the year went on. I watched as his senior year unfolded, impressed by everything he accomplished. David joined the varsity soccer team, mentored younger students, and became the senior class president. He came to school early, dedicated himself to improving his study habits, and passed all his classes including the community college courses. He won an award for most improved student in his graduating class. Angela was with him the entire way. He might have carried her books but she made sure he opened them. David and Angela even won prom king and queen. David did it, he fucking did it, and I couldn’t remember a time I was happier for someone.

The week before graduation I took David and some of his friends surfing for a field trip. It was a horrible idea. The principal told me explicitly not to do it. Something about insurance and kids in the ocean. I rarely listened to him anyway so we drove out to Pacifica. I gave the guys a crash course; I warned them about rip currents and told them to stay close to me, paddle with the wave, and pop-up. The boys cheered each other on as they took turns trying to catch the rolling breakers. They’d stand momentarily only to fly backwards as the board slipped out from under them. They got a kick out of it all, slagging each other when someone crashed into the surf. I caught a wave and paddled back to the lineup and did a quick head count. There were five boys but I could only see four. My heart raced and I counted again, still only four.

I paddled over an incoming wave to get a better view of the horizon and there beyond the breakers was David, his head bobbing up and down in the sea. His surfboard was a dozen yards away from him, its leash dangling in the current. He was stuck in a rip and struggling to swim. I paddled fast, seeing his head go below the surface then reappear. Finally I reached him and scooped him onto my board with my left arm, and as I did, I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder. We steadied ourselves on my board and I paddled diagonally away from land to escape the current. Once safely out of the rip I turned back toward shore as a large set rolled in. I paddled with long hard strokes and heard a pop in my left shoulder just as we caught a wave — sliding off the board and tumbling into the white wash. We were held under water for a few tense moments until we reemerged at the surface gasping for air. We drifted slowly toward shore as the waves pushed us to safety. We collapsed in exhaustion on the wet sand and stared up at the sun breaking through the marine layer. I was glad David was okay but angry at myself for putting him in danger. How could I have been so reckless? What was I trying to prove?

The guys paddled in and David laughed while explaining what happened. He claimed I had saved his life and he owed me one. I assured him he owed me nothing, that it was all my fault. I rubbed my shoulder, realizing I couldn’t lift my left arm.

A week later the school put on a wonderful graduation that would be its last. David’s family was all there, his mother beaming with pride. He cried in her arms as he held his diploma. That summer the school closed. There was no news press, no true explanation for it. Just another school that came and went. Our campus was getting taken over by another charter school.

We had created a school based on positive relationships and then one day they told us to all go home. I blamed many people, mostly myself. I hadn’t spoken up. I’d seen it coming and I didn’t do enough to stop it. When it all came to an end, the students who hadn’t graduated were sent to a different school. The rug had been pulled out from under them. All the positive relationships, all the hard work, all the struggles and triumphs felt like they were for naught.

I moved to San Diego and searched for a new doctor to see about my shoulder. I met Dr. Harriot; she was a tall, polite woman who listened patiently as I explained that I wanted to be referred to someone about my shoulder. She explained that since I would be under her care, she would like to have a better sense of my overall health. She said her relationship with her patients was important, that we should have an open dialogue. I complied.

I told her I was thirty-five years old and liked playing basketball, but lately I’d found I couldn’t keep up with the younger guys. She asked more about that and I told her I’d fainted a month earlier during a basketball game. We talked about a lot of things; how I slept, what I ate, my drinking, my energy level. I liked her and felt at ease in her presence. At the end of my visit she referred me to another doctor for my shoulder and also sent me down the hall to take a blood test.

Two days later Dr. Harriot let me know I was anemic. She immediately ordered a colonoscopy. All I could think about was how that would fix my shoulder. But I agreed to the procedure, still not registering that there might be a problem. It turned out there was; stage three colon cancer. Two weeks later I was in surgery, not for the shoulder, but to remove a decent sized tumor. The surgery was a success and I was put on chemotherapy to kill the remaining cancer. David got the news and contacted me.

“You got someone looking out for you, man.”

“I had a great doctor,” I said. “I was lucky.”

“It wasn’t luck.”

“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “Maybe if you had listened to my surfing lesson and not tried to drown yourself, I wouldn’t have ever met my doctor. So thank you.”

“Shit. What lesson? You just handed us the boards and said follow me.”

He was right. That’s why they say bad teachers become administrators.

“Thanks for calling,” I said. “I appreciate it.”

“It’s not your time. Just do whatever the doctors tell you. Just put one foot in front of the other and you’ll get through this.”

I assured him I would. We talked a while longer. We lamented how our school was closed so unfairly and caught each other up and where people were these days. We laughed as he told me stories about things kids had done that I had been oblivious to. We laughed as I told him anecdotes about his former teachers. We kept laughing because neither of us knew what to say to all of this. We finally said an awkward goodbye and promised to stay in touch. A moment later I received a text message.

Only six months until you’re cancer free. I believe in you.




Image: by Elias on Pixabay, licensed under CC.2.0

Jack Larkin
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  1. Just discovered your story, and I’m so glad I did. Beautiful and poignant. What a perfect example of the difference a teacher can make in the lives of their students.


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