In 2010, I finally learned what Susie Gross had been telling us all along. She had been saying to us that you need to love every child, even if you don't. I had heard the words for years, but it didn't really sink in until fall of 2010, but the story begins a year earlier.
In the fall of 2009, I had a student, let's call him Martin, enter into my Spanish 1 class. He was ordinary enough and didn't get my attention in the beginning. However, as the school year progressed, Martin did less and less work and fell further and further behind in class. His folders were decorated with scenes from graphic horror movies and his drawings were much of the same. We had had many interventions in most of his classes, but all were in vain. The counselor had even resigned to the fact that he was going to drop out of high school and there wasn't much we could do about that.
After trying every intervention known, I gave up on Martin. He did nothing in my class and chose to sleep during the 90 minutes I had with him. I moved him to the back of the room so as not to be a distraction and we agreed to disagree on his education. I felt bad, but I, and others, had tried everything. He was a bit of an outcast, a little strange, and he scared many with his drawings, graphic movie pictures, and his fascination with serial killers. (Though none of this was directed at his classmates or the school, so no flags were raised.) I disliked him and he disliked me and that was our existence.
He ended up failing my class. No surprise there. Our school was a special school, though public, you had to apply and maintain decent grades and behavior. As Martin did neither, none of us expected him to return the following year.
As a new school year was to begin and I looked over my rosters, I noticed Martin was back at school and back in my class! He was repeating Spanish 1 (typically a freshman course as Spanish was mandatory all 4 years) as a junior. I thought to myself this was not going to go well. Then I remembered Susie's words and made a conscious decision to love Martin no matter what and if that didn't happen, I was going to fake it.
So that first day of school when I saw Martin coming down the hall, I put on a big smile and welcomed Martin to my class. I told him I was happy to see him and I asked him if he had any new movie pictures for the new year. He was taken aback a bit because he was dreading another year with me in my "boring" class that he had already failed with a bunch of freshmen. It was hard that first day for both of us, but I wasn't giving up, even if he did.
I continued to strike up a positive conversation with Martin each day he came to my classroom. If I saw him in the hall, I made it a point to go up and talk to him. I never talked to him about school. I always steered the conversation towards topics that he enjoyed. It was all about him.
This continued day after day, week after week, and month after month. It was not easy to love him at first, but he started to grow on me and eventually, I on him. We started this little sarcastic banter between the two of us as he would enter into class. Anyone else, I would have thought disrespect, but from Martin, it was a show of affection. I remember the first time that I got him to smile entering my classroom and at that point, it really hit home—love every child.
As the year progressed, our teacher-student relationship grew and grew and to my shock he came to me in April and asked me for a letter of recommendation for a job. I was ecstatic. We had come so far. He was now passing my class with a C. Everyone in the class knew he was too dumb to pass it the first time—his words, not mine. And he became the class clown. He was getting positive attention not only from me, his teacher, but also from his peers and he was loving it.
The following year, his senior year, I had him again for Spanish 2. I built where we had left off and as the year progressed, he became one of my favorite students. And he ended up with a low B at the end of the year! But what surprised me the most and I would have never expected it, especially that first year, was that he gave me an invitation to his graduation party. That meant a lot. Not only had no one expected him to graduate, but that our relationship had grown to the point that he wanted me to celebrate his graduation with his family.
None of this would have been possible if I hadn't finally lived Susie Gross' words. She had said them many times to me but until I embodied them, they held no real meaning. Now, whenever I have a Martin in my class, I choose to love him from day 1 and not waste even one moment.
Love every child. You never know who you can save.
If you've ever had a Martin in your class, I'd love to hear your story in the comments below.