One week last spring, three of my former students made headlines. It was exciting, really. Most of my students disappear into their futures, and I never find out what has become of them or what they have made of themselves. Imagine my pride when I read in the local paper about Donny, who had become a Tea Party organizer! Clearly, he had crafted his rhetorical skills in English 112 sufficiently to persuade like-minded folk to protest the current administration and promote legislation that…that…well, does something. Something different from what those bastards in office are doing, right Donny? So, good for him. Except that he was in the paper not so much because he had organized a rally, but because he was promoting said rally with racist hate speech, and all of the pols who had signed up to speak had pulled out. (Oh, and because he had a restraining order against him for harassment. But so do I, so who am I to call the kettle black?)
A few days later, I recognized on the front page a picture of Dick, a young man who was subsequently featured on several national news shows for having run off with his girlfriend to Florida. This would not have been newsworthy except for the fact that said girlfriend left her husband and baby one morning to “run some errands,” ditched her car in a parking lot, and set off a national manhunt, all in the name of love. How romantic! Perhaps you even saw them on The Today Show trying to explain why they had made it look as though she had been abducted. Dick had been a student of mine a year or so earlier. He had come to a few classes, turned in the first assignment or two, and then disappeared without a trace. So I guess I had prepared him for his future too.
Thank God for Doug. He made the headlines the same week, not of the local paper, but of USA Today, and not for nutty exploits, but for being one of the top twenty community college students in the entire nation.
I met Doug during his first quarter back at school in more than 20 years. He had been laid off (unjustly as it turns out, but that’s another story) from his manufacturing job due to an injury, and was starting over. This is a familiar narrative where I teach, but from the get go, there was something different about him. He was not intimidated; he was determined.
His first paper, though, was a bit of a mess. He had a lot to say, and he said it with conviction, but he also said it almost entirely in fragments and run ons. I expended an awful lot of ink before I finally just wrote “please visit the writing center,” which (I reluctantly confess) is shorthand for “there are too many errors for me to point out–get some one-on-one help.” Later I learned that he was shocked by this criticism. He had thought English would be a breeze. But instead of either rolling his eyes and resigning himself to C’s or blaming the messenger, he doggedly took every bit of advice I gave him all quarter. I never had to explain anything twice. He soaked all of it up like a sponge; not only writing instruction, but everything.
One day, we were chatting after class when he told me that he had once been a member of a notorious hate group. I hardly knew what to say to such a revelation.
“It was a bad time,” he told me. “I was running with a bad crowd. A lot of drugs, a lot of drinking, a lot of youthful rebellion.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know this about him. If you saw Doug, he might just fit the picture you’ve already imagined. He’s a big guy–not tall, but barrel chested, with a salt-and-pepper ponytail down to the middle of his back. I didn’t need to be told that he rides a Harley. His voice is deep and resonant; he has a booming laugh and kind eyes. This last part did not jibe with the past he told me about.
“Well, that was then,” was all I could think of to say. I’m glad to report that I have never seen a single vestige of that reckless young man. Sometimes I wonder if I imagined that conversation. Turns out he’s done a little good since then.
Doug and I didn’t agree about everything, but I know this: the man is a learning being. By the time he finished his degree last spring, he had not only rocked every class he took and racked up a shelf full of awards, but he was also running the honor society–not just for our school, but for the entire multi-state region. One day, while visiting the VA hospital, he got talking to a patient, a stranger who noticed the videos he had brought for a friend. Within a couple of months, Doug had organized a video drive and set up a movie library for the vets. As part of another service project, he spearheaded an effort to clean up the riverfront in our little industrial city. I can’t begin to list the good he has done in the community, but I can tell you that it’s humbling.
The only person truly surprised when he received national recognition was Doug. Sure, his Phi Theta Kappa advisors nominated him for the honor. I helped him to edit it his application. But he is the one who did every bit of good work, both in the classroom and outside of it. I heard him speak a number of times to large audiences about this honor, and he always began by saying that he didn’t do it alone. Despite his generally outgoing personality and big voice, on these occasions I was struck by his humility and gratitude. Even as he wore the half dozen pins and badges and medals he had earned, or showed off the trophies that were starting to accumulate, he seemed amazed that all of this had happened to him. But he was proud, too: so much so that he had to stop every now and then when he was speaking to keep his emotions in check.
The day after commencement last spring (at which he was a featured speaker, of course) he proposed to a woman that he met while going through the surgical technology program. He had landed a job within weeks of graduation, and has already earned at least one promotion that I know of. I’m sure I’ll see him in the newspaper again some day, but he might be hard to recognize without his ponytail, which he donated to oil cleanup efforts right before graduation. He has thanked me dozens of times for whatever role I may have had in his success, and I always answer by thanking him back. I hope he knows how very sincerely I mean that. I was truly honored to have him in class, and am proud to call him my friend.
I’ll be back with my bad snarky self next week time, but in the spirit of the approaching holiday and even as I avoid the endless amount of grading that has to be done as the quarter ends, I am thankful for my job. In a world populated by the likes of Donny and Dick, Doug reminded me of why I am a teacher.