Here’s a bittersweet news item I found today while browsing the newspaper for the town where I went to college. A former student of mine, Alex Franklin, has become Socorro High School’s valedictorian. His grandmother was just given one week to live, so the school arranged a ceremony so his grandmother could witness. His grandmother is a wonderful woman, a survivor of the atomic blasts in Japan.
Alex has grown into a fine upstanding young man, as well. As his interview states, in Junior High he was not exactly a model student. I taught him at a small private k-8 school, full of a diverse mix of hyper-intelligent professor’s kids and poor Navajo children. It was a catholic school, but the student body was not. Alex was a sixth grader when I taught him, just beginning the travel through adolescence. He had the same trouble focusing that I had at that age, and I took a kinship to him (With a class of eleven students, I actually took a kinship with them all.). His class was my favorite, as they had just emerged from elementary school wide-eyed and full of promise. I taught them math and social studies, and every day I could see their brains turn on to new ideas and ways of thinking. Every new concept in math was an adventure. We started the year reviewing multiplication, and by the end they had a taste of calculus(!). Alex didn’t have the self confidence that he does now, but he was eager to learn and excited to demonstrate the new things he mastered. When I’d see him at a restaurant, for example (it was a small town; this happened often), he’d come over and tell me of his newest conquests. This happened even several years after I taught him. I’m very happy (and proud) to see that he carried this into high school and rose to the top.
I felt a special connection to his family. His mother was in charge of student accounts when I started college. I arrived without a penny in my pocket, naive as can be, expecting to apply my grants and scholarships toward my balance and pay off the rest through the year. The system doesn’t work that way, and I very nearly wasn’t allowed to take classes. She felt for me, far beyond what her position should have allowed her, and created loopholes for me. I worked my way through, holding down several odd jobs at a time while taking 18-24 hours a semester. At every turn, she was there for me, writing letters to the administration waiving certain fees, deferring due dates, finding emergency loan money when I couldn’t buy books. She was my lifeline, keeping me in school when the system wanted to throw me out. She retired my senior year (well, the second of three… I earned three degrees in five years, and due to the absurd number of hours I’d racked up, I was a senior my third year), but by that time I had become the chairman of the student body. I was a voting member of both the faculty council and the institute senate and was in a position to change the system to make things easier for those who followed me. I graduated and took the teaching position, and when I found out Mrs. Franklin’s son was in my class, I knew that I had to be the very best teacher he’d ever had, if nothing else to return the effect his mother had on me. I don’t know if my effort had any bearing on his becoming valedictorian, but I’d like to think so.