Sisyphus was the guy who pushed a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down again every day. Sometimes, teaching feels like that kind of day. Once in a while, though, that rock is actually flint that ignites a spark.
As my student stood next to me staring at the screen in wonder, I could tell it was sinking in. Until this moment: “Estelle,” a statuesque young African-American woman, hadn’t fully comprehended what a full-ride, full-need scholarship meant.
“But I saved money for books,” she said.
I pointed at the screen, “That’s paid for. Look on this line.”
Estelle could easily be a model, and wanted to be when I first met her two years ago. But then she wanted to be everything — chef, engineer, film director. Now I watched her soaking it in, nodding my head in affirmation.
She had spent so much time worrying about whether she could pay for college. Her breath caught in her throat, and then the lines on her forehead disappeared and a Mona Lisa smile spread into a cheesy grin. Her experiences of bullying, abuse and instability would not define her. She would have another chance to create her identity.
This conversation reminded me of another one I had early in my teaching career.
“Juan” had been my student for a couple years. He was a quiet-spoken and artistic young Hispanic man with a kind heart. He couldn’t be himself, though. He thought he had to act tough. In middle school, Juan proved himself worthy to his peers by being involved with gangs.
After an expulsion for aggression toward a teacher, Juan had to make some changes. In ninth grade, he made a lackluster effort to avoid trouble, but in 10th grade he showed some maturity. It pleased me to witness this small turn-around — a rare event in high school — and I was rooting for him. I was fortunate enough to win his trust, so he shared his desire to go to college with me. But he needed a miracle to pay for it.
Enter Juan’s spark: the Achievers Scholarship. Because Juan was undocumented, he couldn’t receive federal money. The Achievers Scholarship didn’t require students to be U.S. citizens or have the highest grades. As Juan worked through his junior year, I saw his choices reflect his belief in something better. He was doing his homework consistently. He would come ask for help all the time. He avoided his former gang affiliations. He carried himself with pride and confidence.
Juan was college bound.
Then something changed. The day Juan came to me, I had heard on the radio that morning that one of the first versions of the DREAM Act had failed. Attempting a stoic front, unwelcome tears formed in the eyes of a young man who had tried to play by the rules; his face crumpled and he looked away.
“Why should I go to college now? I won’t be able to work legally,” he said.
I tried to argue that he could wait it out in college; maybe the Legislature would pass the bill before he graduated. No.
Rather than experience rejection again, he never applied for the scholarship and senior year was a repeat of his ninth-grade year. Juan thought he was owed a sign, and his faith in people was a barely lit flame, snuffed out with the failure of that law.
What makes someone persevere in the face of adversity? What makes another quit after a meager attempt?
I think it is hope. Hope is powerful, and it has an immense appetite. We must feed hope large and small sparks that turn into flames and then bonfires.
Without hope, students struggle to get Ds. But with it, I can barely contain them. These students won’t take no for an answer. These students will challenge the status quo. These students will change the world.
I hope.Casey Silbaugh of Tacoma, an educator of 15 years, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.