A tale of two boys

This is a story I have shared before; it was published in a collection of stories by National Board Certified teachers. I like to return to it after days like this — to remind me why I teach.

Over the course of my teaching career, I have received many awards, but few were as precious or as instructive as Sammie and Stephen. When I met Sammie, he was 18 years old and walking into my 10th grade English class after having spent his entire school career in self-contained special education. His mother had decided that she wanted Sam, who was the last of her seven children, to be the one to  graduate from high school with a diploma. He was actually pretty good in math and some other subjects, but had severe problems in reading and writing. Sam could not write a coherent sentence. Looking back he may have been dyslexic, but at that time our small rural school district had no testing or provisions for that.

I taught Sammie two consecutive years. Along with his mother and older sister, we developed an individual learning plan for him. Our primary goal was to help him to pass the mandatory state exit exam.This was a young man who had been written off as hopeless by so many people, and for so long, that even he didn’t believe he could actually learn. He would sit quietly on one side of the classroom, writing, while I worked with the rest of the class. His writing was painstakingly slow, and he would make all sorts of facial contortions as he struggled to put together even simple sentences. By the end of the first year he could write a decent paragraph. By the end of the second year, he was ready to tackle the reading and written communication sections of the test. It took three attempts, but he finally did pass.

Stephen started into a life of crime in 9th grade, right after his best friend, who was also a student in my 9th grade English class that year, shot himself through the head. We watched as Stephen’s already weak foundation crumpled into full fledged self-destruction. He was already 17 (the age when students can legally drop out of school in our state). Then, one Friday afternoon, while the rest of the student body poured into the gym around 2:30 for a pep rally, Stephen begged me to help him write an essay. I remember staring at this disheveled, hollow-eyed kid who had spent the previous weekend in jail, was currently on probation (which was the only reason he came to school), skipped every class except P.E. and mine, and I heard myself saying, “Sure, what do you want to write about?”

We worked until almost 5 p.m. I don’t even remember the topic now, only that he asked me to pick one. What he really wanted was to prove, mostly to himself, that he could write an essay. When we finished, he just sat there and grinned at the paper. He asked me to keep it. The next week, I didn’t see Stephen for a few days. When he did return, he asked for his essay, and sat in the back of class copying it. He handed me the original as he left the room. After that, he was in and out of school, until finally, I heard he’d been arrested again. Stephen is in state prison now, and we still write one another.

There have been many Sammies and Stephens. Some of the stories have happy endings, some have sadder ones, and some endings have yet to be written. Taken together, they are blessings for which I am deeply grateful, and the reason I love what God has called me to do.

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