Six years, five graduations, nine hundred school days.
A relatively short period of time in the lifespan of a human, 900 days.
If all the hours I had spent teaching in school were added up into one continuous, non-stop marathon, at 6.6 hours a day, I'd be only 247 days old.
Six years teaching and I'm still just a baby.
This year only two of the students on my case load are graduating, but only one will be at the ceremony, only one will walk across the stage. The other should have graduated last year, but doesn't want to "walk" when most of his senior class graduated a year earlier.
But the girl who is walking across stage is a success story. I've seen her grown from a shy, dependent girl into a slightly less shy but independent young woman. It's been a struggle: building her confidence, teaching her to believe in herself, getting her to work on her own.
"Looking forward to graduation?" I ask rhetorically.
"I'm not going to walk," she says flatly.
"I don't want to walk. It's stupid."
Oh no, this is not happening. "Graduation is a rite of passage, it only comes once. In life, there are no do-overs. You should go."
"No, Mister. I don't want to, it's embarrassing."
"Embarrassing? Everyone is walking across stage. It will be over in like a second."
"No, it's okay. I don't want to. Graduations are boring."
"Of course they're boring!" I exclaim. "Graduation is supposed to be boring! It's for your parents, and your teachers, and your family! Graduation is for everyone but you!"
The girl looks at the floor, unwilling to meet my gaze.
It occurs to me there is more going on here than meets the eye; the benefit of six years, five graduations and 900 days experience.
"If you don't do this," I continue, "you may live to regret it."
The girl mumbles something. I ask her to repeat herself, leaning in.
"I don't have the money, Mister."
"Money for what?"
"It's a hundred dollars for the cap and gown."
"A HUNDRED DOLLARS! Cold hard cash?"
The girl nods, quietly embarrassed.
"What about your parents?" I ask. "Don't they have the money?" The girl shakes her head. I've known that her family is poor, I once had to "loan" her and her sister money to go see Eclipse. "Do they want you to go?" The girl nods, gaze furtively darting about the room.
"I want you to go the rehearsal today at lunch. You are going to graduate."
"But I don't have the money."
"I'll take care of it. Don't worry about it."
"But, I don't have the money."
"I'll get you your cap and gown. Go."
I go the special ed department first, explaining the situation. Borquez and Khazani immediately start asking their students.
Some seniors short on credits have already bought their cap and gown but won't be needing the gown since they won't be graduating.
An aide who graduated two years ago says he'll bring in his blue and silver cap and gown, after all, he isn't using it. Caps and gowns don't really change; South East's 2005 graduating class would fit right in with this year.
But his father has already thrown the aide's cap and gown away. Turns out he didn't think his son would ever need to use it.
Ms. Owens finds a website that sells the gowns for $15, but time is short and it will cost me through the nose to have it shipped.
Eventually, I go to the head of leadership and ask her if I can buy the gown at cost, or about $50. The head of leadership agrees. Khazani, Martinez and Solorio all help contribute cash.
I go back to the girl, handing her the money. I could have paid for it directly, but I want her to buy it for herself. She deserves that.
Two hours later she enters my room with a small plastic bag containing the gown, cap, a black embroidered sash, and a small medal. (In today's world, graduation is worthy of a medal.)
"I have my cap and gown, Mr. Leiken."
I nod, looking up from where I am helping a student finish up a paper. "Awesome, so how was rehearsal?"
"It was okay."
The girl goes to my window, looking out over the football field, where students are lining up for the senior photo. She stares in silence, twisting the cap and gown bag in her hands in endless loops.
"Aren't you going to join the seniors for the photo?"
"No. It's too hot."
"You should go. Be a part of it."
"No, I don't want to." she answers, staring at the crowd outside.
I stop lecturing her. Sometimes you have to let people do what they want to do. Nothing is said, nothing is spoken. Neither of us is bothered by the silence, the lack of conversation.
The bell rings, and the girl turns. "Goodbye, Mister," she says, exiting the room.
It's her way of saying thanks.
Six years, five graduations, 900 days.
It never gets old.
Copyright 2010-2011 by Brian Leiken
Crossed Out by Brian Leiken at http://www.lulu.com/
Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, special ed teacher and author of Crossed Out, a book about and for his students. Oh yes, he's also my son:)
Photo of cap and diploma by Mary Gober
Photo of We're done! by Kati Garner
3 years ago