Sometimes I go months without seeing any of my former students. Then, I’ll venture to the grocery store at 5 pm on a Tuesday and see six of them in 15 minutes.
Sometimes I worry about the ones I never bump into. How are they doing? Are they okay? I wonder.
Bryce is one of those students I worry and wonder about. I had him for two years, and he made incredible progress from a squirrelly junior who couldn’t sit still in his desk, to a serious senior who devoured first graphic novels, then dystopian classics. He wrote pages of essays I couldn’t get him to care about, then progressed to delivering measured country wisdom.
Bryce, along with his class, wasn’t a kid you could easily forget–he was part of my MTEC crew, the rowdy country boys who attended our high school for half a day and worked on their vocational certifications for the rest. Bryce and his pals Troy and Bull leapt at the chance to build my bookshelves rather than read books, give my husband advice on how to fix up the ’92 Bronco he bought rather than write poetry, or sneak their dip spit into Gatorade bottles rather than revise an essay.
So, when my husband, a spine surgeon, saw Bryce come into the ER one evening, he knew who he was. He knew his face from his visits to my classroom; he knew his personality from my stories over the dinner table; he knew my frustration as I lamented over trying to find him a book to read. He knew what that kid meant to me, and he also knew he wasn’t allowed to tell me about the horrific car crash it was evident Bryce had just been in.
But the news was all over social media–Bryce had flipped his Jeep over an embankment, rolled down a hill, and broken his spine in several places. I knew that since my husband was on call, he’d be the one taking care of Bryce, fixing his shattered bones. I also knew that Bryce wouldn’t be returning to school this year, that he’d be assigned to homebound instruction, and that not just anyone would be able to shepherd him through his classes.
So I was worried right away–worried that for all of Bryce’s progress, this accident outside the classroom would erase the growth he’d achieved so painfully, in an equally painful way. Would he walk again? Would he be himself after rolling his prized Jeep down one of our state’s famous country roads? Would he finish his junior year classes successfully and stay on track to graduate?
Since I had an in with his doctor, I got to visit Bryce in the hospital the day after his surgery. He wasn’t paralyzed, but he’d have a long road to recovery–and to a successful finish to his school year.
A week later, Bryce was at home, in a back brace, scars all over his body, and his face still bruised and battered. I was there too, my arms filled with binders full of his assignments from all six of his classes. His mom, whom I’d met when I visited the hospital, brewed me coffee in the kitchen and sorted out the pills Bryce needed to take every afternoon. He blushed when she had to help him use the restroom, or nagged him to get out of his recliner and take a walk, or shuffled the thick stack of hospital bills I saw on their kitchen counter.
For three months, this was our routine–I’d arrive at Bryce’s house two afternoons per week with all of his homework and gently prod him through it. I’d bring him Gatorade and Cheetos from the gas station on the way to his house to help bribe him through the math and history assignments he hated. Science, he enjoyed, and his vocational class homework never failed to bring a smile to his face. But it took him twice as long to finish all of his required work–between his concussion and injuries, his fear about getting hurt again if he were to return to school, and the exhaustion brought on by physical therapy and trauma, it was no wonder he had trouble concentrating.
But I knew that English would be a tough subject to approach. I wanted Bryce reading and writing meaningfully–frequently and deeply enough for the acts to be therapeutic. Outside the workshop community of our classroom, it was harder to guide him toward this kind of cathartic literacy, but we got there.
By the end of the semester, he’d read nine books with damaged protagonists, written poetry about how his accident had created new gratitude for his mother and sister, and crafted a multigenre paper about his accident called “Anything With Wheels Will Cost You.”
My Jeep is my peace keeper. It’s the thing to let me get rid of reality. Some people have books, walks, or something else, and I have riding. No one is able to get ahold of you and all it is, is you and the woods and the roads.
After reading that line from his MGP, I knew he’d get another fast car, and he did. By the next year, he had new wheels and a new attitude. I got to have him in class again. He was a different kid–subdued, quiet, focused. He worked just as hard in class as he did outside of school, holding down two jobs to be able to buy a new vehicle so he could feel like his old self again. He flew largely under the radar in my 28-person class, graduated in the spring, and finished his vocational certification.
I hadn’t seen Bryce in over a year, but had wondered what became of him. Then, last week, I spied him pulling out of a gas station. He was easy to spot, driving a truly West Virginia tricked-out truck, complete with lift kit, muddin’ tires, and chrome roll bars. His hair was longer, and he was smoking a cigarette. I pulled out my phone, wondering if I still had his number, and I did.
His reply to my message makes me continue to worry and wonder about him, perhaps more than I did before I’d seen him.
Life after high school isn’t easy for any of our students. When they leave our classrooms and we continue to worry about them, it’s for good reason–the transition from a “much simpler” time to the responsibilities of adulthood is tough for anyone.
But they remember what we teach. Maybe they don’t remember things like apostrophe use, but they remember that we care, that our concern for them goes beyond whether they can read and write well, and into whether they can live well beyond our classrooms.
I know you have kids you’ll never forget, too. And I know they haven’t forgotten you, either. We remember them; they remember us. Let’s teach them what’s worth remembering.
Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident. She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, Reese Puffs (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.