Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tales from Factory High: Willie

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 John F. Kennedy High School who didn’t excuse themselves after ninth period. Willie arrived on time each day with a big smile and never caused any problems. He soon distinguished himself by doing his homework thoroughly and on time, and by participating in class cheerfully and often—exceptional behavior at this Bronx public school.

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, City College offered Willie a full scholarship, but I suggested that he also apply to Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. An admissions officer there told me that although Willie’s SAT scores and grades were lower than those of most applicants, if he applied through the Higher Education Opportunity Program, there was a chance he could get in.

Willie decided to try. I warned him that getting in would be difficult, but once he visited Columbia, he was hooked. “I never knew there were places so beautiful,” were his exact words. I helped him with his essay, wrote his recommendation, and prayed.

While we waited to hear from Columbia, I talked with Willie about his options. He’d been planning to attend City College because it was close to his inner-city home, and because of the scholarship. But he said he wanted to go to college where there’s open space, and where he wouldn’t see the same drug dealers near his school that he saw every day on his block. But Columbia rejected him.

At graduation, I gave Willie a gift-wrapped set of The Lord of the Rings. He was there alone because his mother couldn’t take time from work. Willie told me that he’d accepted the offer from City College, but that I had given him some ideas. Perhaps, he said, he would transfer in a year or two. Somewhere upstate, somewhere with open space. He gave me a hug and promised he’d do great things.

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 City College is 3.4, that he hopes to get higher degrees in Computer and Electrical Engineering, Physics and Math. He has set his sights on Stanford and M.I.T. He wants to work for NASA. “I have never thank you enough,” he wrote. “You encouraged me to reach for the stars, to fill all my desire and to be proud of who I am.”

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.

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