In order to preserve privacy, I will not use real names. So, let me call this Student, #41, in honor of Ben Hur's position at the Roman oars. Student #41 came to my class several years back. He came in the middle of the year. This is not uncommon in New York City. It is probably not uncommon in many places today. Parents move. Families immigrate or migrate. Kids deal with the changes as best they can.
Student #41 turned out to be different from all other cases with which I had previous experience. A sealed letter turned up one afternoon in my mailbox, informing me of the unusual situation of Student #41. The letter was written in the vaguest terms. Basically, I was asked to visit our AP Guidance for further details. I, of course, did so.
Student #41 transferred to our school from across the City. Student #41 was the sole survivor in his family of his father's psychotic rampage. I later learned that Student #41 had been away when his father decapitated his mother and sibling. Student #41 found his family members in bags in the closet.
Still, Student #41 showed up to class as a mild-mannered young man. He sat in the front row of my class. He looked no different from any other student, only his leg kept swinging back and forth like a metronome. I knew Student #41 would be getting a lot of psychological help outside of the classroom. I knew he had a supportive and loving member of his extended family who took him in as they both faced this tragedy together.
Still, I knew as a history teacher, if I was not careful, I might very well say the wrong thing. I don't think I felt as much stress any year in the classroom as I felt then, despite all the observations and media abuse showered upon teachers today. I was consciously and subconsciously worried that I might not only say the wrong thing, but that I might fail to say the right things.
To begin with, I counted myself lucky that this student joined our class after the unit on the French Revolution. I don't know how I would have dealt with the Reign of Terror. Thank goodness for small blessings.
Student #41 quickly fit into the structure of group work in class. I am sure that nobody around him would have ever guessed the issues with which he was dealing. If they had known, I know they would have been loving though. I look at the students around me every year and I know many must battle their own inner storms.
Can you imagine how many kids across the City must face homelessness, hunger, neighborhood violence and drugs, serious parental illness or even death, pregnancy, prostitution, etc.? And, yet, "reformers" are more concerned about Common-Core-aligning these kids and taking down their teachers. Strange days, indeed!
When we came to WWII and the Holocaust in Student 41's class, I decided to teach it in a new way. I changed the focus from the destruction wrought to how survivor's deal with the ruins around them. I had a book written by a former student's grandmother called I Will Survive. I searched for other stories of survivors. I wove them together. In that and other ways that year. I attempted to focus not so much upon tragedy as upon how survivors rebuild their lives and the different paths they find to move forward.
I don't remember Student #41's score on the Regents. I remember he did well though. I will never know the thoughts passing through his head, but I appreciated that I must deal with historical content that year with the greatest care. I don't know the quality of the job I managed, but I tried my best. I am a teacher, but I am also a mother and a sympathetic human being. The depth of Student 41's success won't show up in any test score. But, you know what, Student #41 is not a statistic in any sense of the word. Student #41 is a survivor. I was glad I was given the opportunity to try to be his teacher.