Youth Radio: Remembering our students
Students these days are faced with a lot of pressures: social pressures, academic pressures, you name it. It’s all part of public school education, and a world that Youth Radio commentator Robyn Gee saw first hand while working as a Teach for America instructor at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in San Francisco. When one of Gee’s former students was shot to death, she wondered what more she and other teachers could have done to prevent the tragedy within a regulated school curriculum. Here’s her reflection, provided by Youth Radio’s news service: Turnstyle.
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ROBYN GEE: When I heard the news that my former student Andy had been shot, gunshots echoed in my ears. How could he be dead? Andy – who always wore his uniform, even when it had a week’s worth of stains on it. Andy – who would wolf down a whole Subway sandwich at 9am. Andy – who could make everyone laugh.
He was in my eighth grade English class at a middle school in San Francisco. He was only a little older – 16 – when he died.
I’m not teaching anymore, but I still feel responsible for all of the students who came through my classroom. After Andy’s death, my friends from the school immediately planned Skype dates, phone conversations, and get-togethers to talk. “Who could have seen this coming?” we asked each other.
That was the easiest and hardest question to answer, because it felt like we could have, should have, seen it. I had 9,000 minutes over the course of the year to influence Andy’s life and future. Did I miss a teachable moment?
My mind flashes back to a moment when we were reading a play in class. In groups, we played a version of group charades. The students silently acted out scenes, while the rest of the class guessed what the scene was. The first group took their places, one person lying on the ground, one person standing over her, and three people were whispering. The class was stumped. And then the group revealed it was the scene of a shooting. The class burst into laughter.
It’s not so funny anymore. Guns didn't scare them, and now their classmate is dead.
Teachers have the opportunity to change students’ lives, but we are blinded by the culture in education that exists today. Events like Andy’s brutal death are reminders of the real work that has to be done in the classroom. Andy’s last name started with a “Z”; he was the last student I called to walk across the stage, to claim his diploma and continue onto high school.
Now I picture all the students on my attendance sheet from Andy’s year, and imagine reading each name aloud, from A to Z. I think about one girl who had lost her mom and barely scraped by in English class. Was she getting the emotional help she needed? Or was she getting into trouble? Or the quietest boy in class with an imagination that could astound you – was he getting encouragement? Or bullied?
But who has time to focus on these issues nowadays, when schools will be shut down if test scores don’t go up? Forget team-building, we need to do test review. Forget illustrating your personal narratives; we need to edit your prepositional phrases.
Yes – reading and writing scores need to go up. But students also need to live beyond their sixteenth birthdays.
While Andy didn’t always come on time, or do his homework, he could make the whole class erupt in giggles. Sometimes he would laugh so hard that the energy would drain from his body, and he’d be left sitting at the desk while the others went to the next class. “Don’t be late!” I’d say, scooting him out the door. I was looking out for him. But I failed to make sure that others did the same.