Commentary, Teaching

On Potential

It’s September, and if school hasn’t started already, it is starting this week. In seven years teaching, I have loved this time of year best. I’m ready to be back in the classroom, I have a clean slate to make my unit plans better, and I have no expectations for my students. The blog posts are rolling in lately about how to engage your students from day one, how to make sure you see their possibilities and potential, how to capitalize on it and cultivate superstars.

All of this is powerful and good and right. The positivity of this type of year should be celebrated.

And yet.

This week I learned that a former student of mine had pled guilty to a heinous crime. And I mean really heinous. His victims’ impact statements have made headlines, and I forced myself to read them with a stone in my throat. I cannot believe he would be capable of something so horrendous, I found myself thinking. And every time I did, I forced myself to read the victims’ statements again.

As cliche and horrible as it sounds, this kid really was a golden child. In my high school classroom, in every classroom. He was thoughtful and kind and incredibly smart and hardworking. I have such pleasant memories of him that he would be one of those kids I would love to reconnect with, have coffee with, and be a part of their success in adulthood.

And yet.

I keep in contact with many of my former students (I hadn’t kept in contact with him), and the vast majority have gone on to do wonderful things. I had coffee with a student last year who is headed to the priesthood. I get messages often from former students who are now in dental school, art school, getting married, having babies, going into social work. So many of the kids I have had the honor of teaching are living wonderful, fulfilled lives.

But not this one. I think I speak for all of his teachers when I say we saw his potential for great things. But we didn’t see his potential for evil. It did not cross our minds.

That is a major problem.

I don’t pretend that I, as his English teacher, could have changed him through a novel, through an assignment, through a conference. I’m not so naive to think that I am in any way responsible for his behavior.

But what if I hadn’t looked at him and assumed he was destined for greatness? What if any of us had seen that with his intellect and popularity that he might slip through some sort of moral crack? What if just one of us had reminded him that with his great blessings came great responsibility?

My heart is broken for his victims, for their families. For everyone who elevated him beyond human status. I can’t get beyond the feeling that I failed him somehow, even in the smallest way, by subconsciously assuming he was set in life, and didn’t really need me.

Teachers: our jobs are so important. Don’t be afraid to take a few minutes from your unit plans to talk about humanity, about potential, about purpose. Understand that no one in your room is beyond reproach. See potential, the good and the bad, in each and every face you see every day.

Leave a Reply