More than just a drop-out

I trudged into the front office at school today coughing and hacking into my shirt sleeve feeling pretty sorry for myself for catching a sinus infection the week of my first marathon. I peered into my mailbox expecting to find the usual flyer advertising books for reluctant readers addressed to Danielle Felzer instead of Danielle Helzer. Crammed inside the small cubby was our 9th grade writing textbook and a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, our current novel of study in English 9. I searched for a name on the inside front cover of the novel, and when I didn't find one I inquired with the secretary.
"They're Justin's*" she answered stoically. "He dropped today."
"What?!" I asked, my voice rising.
"Yup. Came in the morning to sign the papers."
"Well, will he have to bring around a sign out sheet? Will I get to see him?"
"No. Kids who drop out don't have to do that. He said he's coming back next year," she bellowed with a hint of sarcasm. To her, he was just another drop-out.
And that was that. Conversation over. Justin had simply dropped out of school.

Really, it shouldn't have surprised me. Justin was in my 1st hour class, and he only managed to make it to class a few times a week at best. I'll admit, it frustrated me. I had Justin last year in a remedial class and had made a great connection with him. At the end of the year I asked all my students to write me a letter about what they learned, and in his letter buried among misspelled words was, "I've learned that fighting and causing physical problems isn't the answer most of the time. I learned that reading is something I like and it calms me down a bit. And if you really try you can do anything." You'd have to know the kid to know how remarkable these comments are. This is a kid who punched many walls, got in many fights, flipped off many teachers. So when Justin's attendance started to get spotty a few months into this year, it hurt just a bit. Selfishly, I wondered if it was more than a coincidence that Justin missed my class and showed up for 2nd hour.

Eventually I shrugged it off.

A few weeks ago, Justin sauntered in to my room for Extended School Day--20 minutes at the end of the day designated to help failing students catch up.

"Justin! Good to see you! I was beginning to wonder if you were still around! I'm beginning to think you're just skippin' out on English," I said playfully.
"Ha, ha Ms. Helzer. Nah, it's not you. I just can't get my butt out of bed in the morning. I can't take serious classes in the morning next year," he responded with a grin.
"Well, that's a good realization to have. Keep that in mind when you set up your schedule next year. Now, what can I help you with?"
And we set to work sifting through the endless pile of make-up work I had collected for Justin. When the bell rang at 3:25, he gathered up his things and I said, "Man, Justin, it'd be great to see you tomorrow morning at 8:00..."
"7:55 would be better. I'm gonna be here at 7:55!" and we both laughed as he walked out of my room.

The next morning he walked through my door at 7:59, and I made sure to make a big deal out of Justin's early arrival to class. I patted him on the back as he walked in and he rolled his eyes as I told him I was sooo glad to see his lovely face. I continued this trend each time Justin made it to my class.

He didn't make it to class today. But he did make it to school to sign papers so he could drop out.  It broke my heart to put his books back on the shelf. He doesn't realize how much potential he has. He improved 20 points in Reading on our district test scores this year. The gains he's made despite his poor attendance have been tremendous. This isn't the first student I've had drop out, but this one hit me hard today. After I realized I'd probably never talk to him again since we'll be moving in less than a month, I wondered if I had done enough for Justin. I hope I showed him that I cared about him. I hope he felt welcome in our classroom. I think back to the last line he wrote in his reflection letter about being able to do anything if he really tries. I wonder where he picked up on this as I'm careful not to say this to my students because I know it's mostly a load of crap if taken too literally. A part of me hopes Justin finds some truth in that line. I hope he learns that he could do the unthinkable if he really tries---like making it to school on time, passing his classes, graduating from high school. And I hope this drives him back to school sometime soon.

I don't know what will become of Justin. But I do know that he's more than just a high school drop-out...he's an unforgettable student. I hope my memories of him will push me to invest deeply in students no matter how many times they frustrate me or miss my class.

*I changed the name of this student to keep in line with confidentiality. 


Huskerbabe said...

This makes me so sad. Every day when I drive around town I see kids who seem lost, wandering around looking for something to do, or maybe looking for someone to believe in them.
Know that you made a difference in his life, even if it was a short time, you planted seeds that could grow later on. I hope he does go back to school next year. I hope someone in his life takes the time to encourage him on a daily basis.
Thanks for posting this Danielle, it reminds me to pray for the young people in our town.

Kristin said...

I hope you feel better and I'm sorry to hear about Justin. I hope he'll back, and I know that you made a difference in his life.

Julie Roberts said...

:( it's sad because when he is older I'm sure it will be on his listed of regrets! All you can do is be a positive light in his life which you are doing! Hopefully he states believing in himself!