Fourth-grade teacher Tom White writes what happened when he looked up a former student and met him for a beer.

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This post was originally published in Stories from School, a blog sponsored by the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, a nonprofit dedicated to building a strong, effective teaching force in Washington state.  It is republished here with permission. 

There’s Always Hope

I was sitting around the other morning thinking about former students. And when I do that, my thoughts invariably turn to Vincent. Because Vincent was memorable.

Eighteen years ago, on the first day of third grade, when I had my class “write something about themselves,” he just sat there. So I took him outside to see what was wrong. “You can write about something else; anything you want,” I offered, “just write something.” He turned to me and screamed, “I can’t write!” and threw his pencil farther than I would have thought possible.

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That pretty much set the tone for what was to be a long year.

Vincent was tough and angry. He acted out. He threw things: pencils, books, foul language, a chair. He refused to work. He refused to be quiet. He refused to sit down. But what made him legendary was the passion with which he did and didn’t do those things. To get an idea of how hostile Vincent was, picture your most challenging student ever and multiply that image by the number of years you’ve been teaching. That was Vincent.

So I was sitting around, wondering (and fearing) what he was up to. With time on my hands, I Googled him and looked him up on Facebook and before long I found him. And after exchanging a few texts we agreed to meet for a few beers.

And he told me his story.

Although he couldn’t articulate it at the time, Vincent knew he was smart, but he also knew he couldn’t do what the other kids could do. He had to move around and talk in order to process information. Sitting still, listening and reading, didn’t work for him. He described school as a plunge into a dark cylinder; the more he tried to engage on his terms, the more we forced him to engage on our terms and the angrier he got. And the angrier he got, the more trouble he got into and the farther he plunged into that darkness.

In other words, we failed him.

But he wouldn’t let me tell him that. He takes full responsibility for his behavior; then and now. He remembers feeling terrible for acting out. Day after day. And now he feels embarrassed, and worries that some of us quit our jobs after a year with him.

That surprised me. Because the familiar narrative when it comes to kids like Vincent is that they’re angry about something; they take it out on the world and they hold the world responsible for the consequences.

Tom White
Tom White

This narrative also has one of us turning Vincent around. Setting him straight. But none of us did that for him. There was no Annie Sullivan; no Jaime Escalante. Not that we didn’t try. I remember countless conversations, trying to figure him out. I remember trying to connect with him, going to his Little League games. Nothing.

It was Vincent who turned Vincent around, along with a junkie house painter that he worked with after stumbling through high school. This guy apparently scared him straight; talked him into going to community college, holding himself up as the eventual alternative.

The strung-out painter was the catalyst, but it was Vincent who enrolled in classes and got straight A’s for two years. And it was Vincent who got accepted into ten different universities, including Stanford and UW. And it was Vincent who received a full ride to Purdue, where he graduated two years later. And it was all Vincent who landed a great job at a major tech firm, where he’s been promoted several times.

Most of us are pretty realistic. We know that every Quentin Tarantino movie has a villain and every Warren Zevon song has a hero. And we know those characters are based on real people; people who plowed through the public education system, leaving terrified teachers in their wake. And we know what usually happens to those people.

But sometimes there’s a happy ending, and I was privileged to spend an evening with one.

Vincent is relaxed, funny and centered. He’s completely different from the feral nightmare I knew 18 years ago. I couldn’t be happier for Vincent, his wife and their two-week old son; a kid who has no idea how lucky he is.

And for me, the message is as simple as it was powerful: there’s always hope.

Tom White has taught for more than 30 years. He currently teaches fourth grade in the Edmonds School District.