(Courtesy of ehow.com)
“Often we remember a great teacher…But what about great students…?” — Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away
I joined a Facebook chat that centers on my home town, Clifton Park, NY, and my old alma mater, Shenendehowa. We reminisce about our childhoods and our time at what we somewhat affectionately called “Shenendehowa Higher Institute of Technology ( (S.H.I.T.) We share memories and stories, catch up on our present lives, re-acquaint, and make new friends. There’s a certain amount of haranguing — the impulse to get old gripes out of one’s systems seems almost impossible to ignore. A few potshots have been taken at bullies known and feared (sometimes naming names, which I think is just a wee bit low at this late date). All of that is balanced by songs of praise for certain teachers.
Reading some of those posts got me to thinking and when the quote above came across my view, something clicked in the back of my mind. What of those special students? I don’t mean the “A” students or valedictorians, the king-like jocks and queen-like cheerleaders, the so-called “leaders” of our class, the highfalutin’ popular kids that we were all supposed to want to be like. I’m talking about the kids who fought long and hard just to survive the hell of school. People can be terribly cruel, and children are often the cruelest of the lot.
Georgie Charles (not his real name; I would not want to possibly embarrass him by relating his true name) was a true-blue Charlie Brown sort of kid. I knew him from grade school to graduation and he never, ever changed — the same buzz cut and glasses, the same high-water pants and outdated wardrobe, the same painfully shy and retiring nature. I sat behind him in quite a few classes and while we weren’t what you’d call friends, we were at least on pleasant speaking terms. I can’t say the same for a lot of our classmates. Cruelty pelted him like sleet on a daily basis. He walked through life cowed, beaten, silent to the point of being invisible. Was that coping mechanism learned at home or did the survival instinct first emerge in the cut-throat, weasel-eat-weasel world of school? Despite the raw deal handed to him by peers and teachers alike, Georgie was kind-hearted and sensitive. He was brilliant at math. (God knows he helped me more than once and I probably should have asked for assistance more often. I might have been a better math student…and gained a friend in the process.) The last time I saw Georgie was at our 25th year reunion. He was sitting off by himself, manning the machine he had brought loaded with CDs of 70’s music. I looked at the rest of my classmates (jocks hanging with jocks, geeks with geeks, bitches with bitches — none of us, not one, having changed our spots in 25 years), and I walked over and hugged him, told him I was glad to see him. At some point he vanished from the proceedings and I’ll never know where he went. But I hope he’s well. I hope he’s found a measure of peace in this life.
Another classmate was Millicent Connors (also not her name). Milly was obese, an unconscionable sin in high school. She sat alone at lunch every single day, eyes downturned to her plain white-bread sandwich. Classmates bumped her table, her tray, her chair. Insults clung to her like burdocks. All she ever did was hunch her shoulders, look aside, and keep moving. Her tenacity amazed me. She could have given up, run away…or done something far worse. But Millie seemed to have decided that none of us were worth that sacrifice (and she was right). Survive or perish was the rule of the day and she chose survival if only to spite her tormentors. (I was not one…but neither did I rise to her defense or offer my friendship, and I’m heartily ashamed of that.) She, too, has disappeared into the fog of years past, but I hope she managed to have the best revenge — a happy life.
There are countless of examples of such great students. You can probably think of some you’ve known. I want to mention one more.
Alex was born with Down Syndrome. I first met him when I worked at a therapeutic horseback riding facility. He’s a personable young man with a great grin, a wonderful sense of humor, and the determination of gods. Alex’s mom decided a long time ago that her son would not be handicapped by his so-called disability. A champion of advocacy, she convinced the school district to allow Alex to move through the grades like any child. She helped him and, I believe, found aides to help him as well. He worked his ass off and I imagine there were moments when he would have preferred to give up and did not.
As it turns out, Alex ended up being a high school classmate of my step-daughter Theresa. She tells me that everyone — EVERYONE — liked Alex a lot…or, if they didn’t, they kept their mouths shut because Alex definitely had his fan club, a group that would not hesitate to point out your wrong-headedness if you so much as hinted that Alex should not be included in anything he set his mind to. (Which, by the way, included scouting as well as competing in — and winning — horseback riding events.)
At graduation, when Alex’s name was called, EVERY SINGLE ONE of his fellow graduates shot to their feet and gave him a standing ovation as he crossed the stage to receive his diploma. EVERY SINGLE GUEST in that auditorium followed suit, standing to applaud and cheer as this beaming young man, soon to go out into the working world, held his diploma above his head.
I like to believe that the celebration of such success is not bestowed only on “handicapped” individuals like Alex, but is a gift now given to every great student out there. At least I hope so. It would be a welcome change, don’t you agree?