Some years ago, the guidance counselor appeared at my classroom door with a senior boy in tow. We were already three weeks into the first quarter, and my Basic English class of eighteen kids was a cohesive and productive unit. I would have preferred it to remain that way.
She pulled me to the side. “There is no place for him,” she said. “His schedule’s been changed and he needs English. Will you take him?”
Everything I had heard about him was true. He wouldn’t do his homework. He tried to sidetrack discussions with impertinent remarks. His body language said, “You can’t make me!” and on Friday afternoons he jingled the coins in his pockets and spread the money he had collected for “partying” out on his desk for the class—and me—to see.
I started with the money.
“Put that away,” I said.
To his own surprise, I think, he cleared his desk. Slowly—it took all semester—he began to settle down, to speak pleasantly, to read his assignments. He started to take tests seriously, too, although he’d protest the unfairness of each one, just in case he failed.
His contribution to discussion was less and less often an outburst, but even in December, he still didn’t raise his hand.
At the semester, he needed a new class. The one I would teach next was a step up in difficulty, and there would be thirty students. He asked what it would be like.
“There will be more reading,” I said, “and you’ll have to raise your hand. You won’t be the center of attention.”
He considered this. “Okay,” he said, “but you’ll never make me a ‘pencilhead’.”
“Pencilhead,” of course, was a derogatory term for a smart kid.
And that’s when he gave himself away. That’s when he told me he wanted to learn.
“Pencilhead” didn’t become a scholar overnight, but he did earn a B in the class. His mother said in June that he’d read more books that year than in all of his years of school combined. I will never forget the day he pulled his chair into another group’s reading circle so he could hear a second discussion of the book his group had just talked about.
After he graduated, he joined the military. He served overseas, and once he wrote me that he was taking an English course—“Introduction to Writing.”
Eventually, he returned to the community, gained employment, and went on for post-secondary training. For a few years, he occasionally came to school to see me. Once he brought McDonald’s for lunch. He always gave me a hug. He had become a success, and he told me I’d taught him that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.
In truth, his success had more to do with him than me. He’d decided to grow up that year in my classroom.
But we teachers remember students like “Pencilhead” long after they have left school, and their stories become our personal folklore. We recall such stories to nourish and reward ourselves for the work we have done, the risks we have taken, the tears we have shed.
Most of us go into education hoping to make a difference in someone’s life.
“Pencilhead” stories tell us we have.
Note: “Pencilhead” was first published by Red Sky Books in 2001 in Pass-Fail, a collection of stories about teaching edited by Kurt Kleidon and Rose A.O. Kleidon.