I haven’t written a blog in a while because I’ve been so immersed in my English class. Elementary 3 is now complete! And at the end of it, I had a touching holy encounter with a student that I’d like to share with you.
“Juanita” is a 17-year-old girl who dreams of one day studying in the US or the UK—and maybe also becoming a fashion model, since she’s already working as a professional runway model in Guayaquil. She’s a real delight to have in the class: friendly, intelligent, funny, and full of life. She’s a good student, and is an especially gifted writer.
But she has some troubles in her personal life. I don’t know a lot of details, but bits and pieces have emerged over time. Her parents are locked in a legal custody battle over her. She doesn’t actually live with either of them, but lives in a separate house with eight other people, including her younger sister. All of this is a big source of stress for her, and sometimes it has affected her performance in the class.
A few days ago, I administered a final test to all of my students. In this online teaching era, we send the tests for the students to do at home, and they have a deadline to return them. But Juanita missed the deadline (not the first time this had happened). And despite repeated requests from me, she still hadn’t turned in the test on the day the course was scheduled to end and I had to submit my final reports to the school.
I’ll be honest: A part of me was a bit irritated, especially since she said she was going to a friend’s birthday party on the beach the weekend the test was assigned. The test takes only twenty-five minutes; why not do it, send it, and then go have fun? But I always want to be kind, and I knew she was going through a lot of stuff, so I decided to take a kind approach to the situation.
We write an “End of Class Report” to each of our students. I did this on Tuesday, and it was here that I kindly addressed the issue of the test. To paraphrase what I wrote: Juanita, I know your dream is to study in the US or the UK. To do that, you’ll need to eventually pass some very rigorous tests, or you will not be able to go. You need lots of practice in taking tests. So from now on, for your sake, I encourage you to really commit to taking every test that is given to you and turning it in on time. I’m not mad at you; I just want you to succeed. I want to help you make your dreams come true. (Aside: Now I wish I had added that famous line from the movie Jerry Maguire: “Help me help you.”)
That evening we had our final class. In the final class, after a group activity, I do a private one-on-one interview with each student about his or her performance. As the class began, though, Juanita had some very sad news to report: That weekend (the weekend she was supposed to do the test), the mother of one of her friends died. She was close to tears. We all gave our condolences. And I thought to myself: I’m sure glad I didn’t get on her case for not completing her test!
When Juanita and I talked one-on-one later in the class, it was a very tender moment. I again expressed my condolences, and told her not to worry too much about the test, given what had happened. She thanked me, and also apologized for not getting the test in to me on time. (She ended up sending it to me later.)
Then she gathered herself together, as if she were preparing to say something very important. She said she knew that she wasn’t always attentive with assignments, but from now on she was going to really focus on them and get them in on time. She said “That’s a promise. I don’t want to disappoint you.” I thanked her for her promise, and added, “Don’t worry. You will never disappoint me.” We agreed that we would work together to make her dreams come true. It was a beautiful moment of love, connection, and common purpose.
Later she sent me a sweet e-mail thanking me and reaffirming her commitment:
Dear Mr. Greg.
I sincerely appreciate your concern for me. I want to fulfill my dream, yes, I have not fulfilled some tasks with you .… But despite that, I promise to do my best in future classes. You won’t be disappointed, it’s a promise.
My best, Juanita.
I wrote back: “Thank you for your promise, but remember it is a promise not only to me, but to yourself. Both of us want your dreams to come true.” And I added that Patricia (whom Juanita has met) and I were sending love and prayers to her and to her friend who lost her mother.
Moments like this are the best part of teaching. Now it’s on to Elementary 4. I will gently but firmly hold Juanita to her promise, because we both want her dreams to come true. One day, I predict that she’ll be modeling in New York while attending Columbia.