I should probably tell you about my school. I work in an alternative school for kids who have been kicked out of regular schools for disciplinary reasons. I teach English and math special education students in grades 6-12. So, my room is usually full of students from 12-18 years old, studying geometry postulates, learning to add fractions, writing book reports, or diagramming sentences. (That’s not true, I don’t teach diagramming sentences, because it’s boring and not very useful. But you get the idea.) They stay with us for as few as 30 days or as many as 120 days, depending on what they did to get sent here.
We run this school like a minimum security prison. Our students wear khakis and plain white shirts, are not allowed anything of color to diminish the presence of gang activity, and walk to classes in single-file lines under constant supervision. It sounds scary. It isn’t. We take away the factors that cause violence in schools and leave only learning. They all participate in character education, and they all are expected to follow a set of non-negotiable rules. Because they all follow the same rules, and the staff enforces those rules consistently, our students get more work done in their time with us than many of them have done in an entire school year before. There are no (or very few) distractions.
Freedom, I’ve heard, only comes after we let go of our pasts. That’s what I try to teach these kids, between the proofs and pronouns: Your past doesn’t have to dictate your future. Your parents’ faults or failures are not yours to continue. Life is only a cycle if you are too afraid to go down a different path. It’s hard, knowing that in some cases, I’m the only person who has ever believed in them – and told them so – or that I am the first person they think of as a role model. I’m certainly no martyr, definitely not a saint. Just a teacher in a room full of delinquents trying to help them find their freedom.
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