The last post put my Bronx days back on my mind. Here is an essay I wrote in journalism school (and just dug up from the depths of my computer) about one of my students from JFK, a native Spanish-speaker from a poor neighborhood in upper Manhattan:
At first, Willie was remarkable only for showing up. He was one of the few students in my tenth period English course at
One day, in passing, I mentioned the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers. Willie asked me to teach him how to manipulate them. So he started arriving five minutes early each day, and we talked about math. I loaned him a copy of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and he identified so strongly with the hero that, despite the more difficult language, he began to tackle the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well. He revealed that his mother held two jobs to support him and his severely disabled little sister. His dad was not around.
Willie may not have excelled at English, but in math he was a star. He was so intent on becoming an engineer that the following year he chose to give up his lunch period to take two math classes simultaneously; he wanted to study calculus before he graduated.
There was never any doubt that Willie would graduate on time—a feat managed by fewer than 40 percent of his classmates. Mild mannered and somehow elegant, he moved through the chaotic halls with an optimism that neither poverty nor neglect could touch.
In the fall of his Senior year,
Willie decided to try. I warned him that getting in would be difficult, but once he visited
While we waited to hear from
A full year later, Willie sent me an e-mail. He had loved the books, he wrote, for exposing him to a world “filled with fantasies and wonders,” and recommended that I read another Tolkien work, The Silmarillion. He told me that his G.P.A. at
It is difficult to maintain relationships with former students; there is no longer a big teacher’s desk or report card to define our bond. I hope that Willie will continue to be in touch, but in my mind, he is preserved as a gallant 17-year-old with a gleaming smile and a whole life ahead to achieve great things. Though I have moved on from the school system, to him I’ll always be the nice teacher who helped him on his way.
For two years, Willie taught me, from his side of the big desk, that effort is itself a form of success. He inspired me to live with optimism, and to approach adversity with tenacity, dignity, and grace.
When I replied to his e-mail, I wished him well and wrote that I am proud of him. But what I really want to tell him is that I appreciate what he taught me.