I took this picture in June 2012, in Segovia (Spain). Thousands had gathered in a square to watch in a giant screen the semifinals of the soccer Euro Cup, an exciting Spain vs. Portugal match. Three or four days later, the country watched in ecstasy Spain win that tournament. Sport became for a short period a palliative for the raging economic crisis that was making people’s life miserable.
The four kids in the picture had just graduated from high school a week before. Here they were: traveling through Europe, burning the first grams of their recently acquired “freedom,” before heading to college, to adulthood. They felt exultant, powerful –a state of mind that matched Spain’s feelings at that moment. They had promised they come visit me in Spain as I was leading the same summer program some of them had previously attended a couple of years before as sophomores. And they did: they showed up in Segovia and stayed with us for four or five days.
I knew these boys since their 5th grade. I had taught them in 6th grade, then in 7th grade. I had coached all of them also, either in 7th or 8th grade. And then I had taught three out of the four as seniors that past academic year 2011-2012. And what an amazing transformation they had gone through: from timid and hesitant middle schoolers to self-confident and bright high school seniors.
Over two years later today—now they are successful juniors in college. One of them, second generation of a Mexican immigrant family, obtained a full scholarship to go to Northwestern. His parents couldn’t believe it: his son had gotten (he had earned, rather, through hard work) a full ride for studying in a great American college.
Another one is at Yale, studying comparative literature and languages. No wondering: some of the essays he wrote that senior year (on Borges, García Márquez or Don Quijote) I could not have written in my second language, both in terms of quality of language and depth of thought. His dad had suddenly passed away a couple of years before, at a relative young age. Every member of our school community felt the loss as his or her own: so much was the respect and love universally felt for that family. His older brother is now a colleague, teaching English literature at age 25: a former student of us now transformed in a mentor to guide younger generations.
The other two are enrolled in similar élite colleges across the country. One is studying to be a doctor; the other, to be an economist. I saw in a supermarket’s parking lot the mother of one of them –the one who is studying to get into medical school. We talked for more than twenty minutes. We only stopped chatting because both her and I had to go do some other errands. I love than family. They are generous, respectful, and genuinely grateful for what our teaching institution has done for their son.
These kids are not my children. And yet I have always felt very proud of what they have accomplished. I am certain I am going to be proud of what they will become. I’ve known them as little boys. I’ve seen them become young adolescents, then rising high school seniors, then successful college students. They have flaws, like everybody else –no doubt about it. Yet I am sure I’ll see them become good men, responsible adults, caring parents and husbands. By any possible measurement, they will become successful adults and positive citizens.
So forget about tests and assessments. Forget about SATs and APs. Forget about grades, about college recs and college applications and college transcripts. Forget about homework and content. Forget even about subject matter. To be able to see all that positive growth –from young kid to fully formed adult– and to know that you are somehow, even for a small fragment of it, part of that success story—that’s the beauty of teaching.