I remember the first time I saw her walking down the school corridor like she owned the place. She did. She was known as the “Godmother,” and she was "swag city." When I saw her sitting in my second-period class, I immediately knew that she and I would develop a very special teacher-student relationship. She didn’t know that yet, as she sized me up as one of the new teachers at her school—but I did. I’m lucky to be skilled in something that has always given me a tiny advantage as a teacher. I learn my students' names very quickly. By the end of my second period class, I knew her name was Jane*. She was a senior who had been at the school for two years.
I felt this girl would need more than the usual to graduate. I went up to her and stood in front of her as she looked up at me with that side-eye kind of look and I asked her, "Are you going to graduate, Jane?" It felt odd for me to feel compelled to ask a student that on the very first day of school. Usually I’m Miss Positive, "All will be well, all will work out, you can do it,” as a teacher. But as I looked at Jane, it was what I felt I needed to say. She looked at me almost offended, and responded, “Yes, Ms. R, I will.” I said, “OK, good. That’s all I wanted to know.” As months passed and school progressed, Jane attended school inconsistently. Some days she’d show up all decked out, walking around with her “Godmother” smiles, and attitude for days. Other times, it was evident it took all her will to make it to class. She’d show up late. Sometimes I would call and wake her up and remind her that school was in session and that she needed to graduate. Often she’d want to lie down on the window ledge or even the floor while doing her work because she was so tired. She was tired from working a full-time job, being a student, a teenager and dealing with life like so many do.
[pullquote position="left"]There was something else Jane was emotionally tired from. I found this out after I read an assignment given to her in her online English class. It asked students to write about a life-changing moment, and Jane wrote about how her sister died at the age of 13 from a tumor on her neck that went untreated because her mom and the rest of the family didn’t know it was malignant. They were busy working and surviving their day-to-day existence. She explained to me that her sister had a small bump on her neck and how it was dismissed by her family. They thought it was a pimple. By the time she got to a doctor, it was too late and she died months later. Jane was 9 years old at the time. Jane struggled all year with her classes. She became my student all day long in my independent-studies class. It was then that things became intense. Making sure that she completed her load of classes in order to graduate was the only option. There were moments when I would call her mom wondering where she was and was told she was still sleeping. Other times, she would show up after lunch saying she had too much fun the night before and needed to rest. But regardless of her crazy circumstances, Jane worked on her classes. Until she didn’t. That’s when we, the school counselor, another beloved teacher of Jane’s and I became super worried and frustrated.
She was almost there, seven days from graduation, and she disappeared. The whole year felt like it took our blood, sweat and tears to keep this girl going, and then seven days before graduation we couldn't find her. It was grueling. The counselor and I had come up with a plan for her to be able to finish the last of her classes on time. I begged for a few extra days just for her. I spent hours figuring out how best to make classes rigorous but doable, and then she disappeared. I’ll admit that the counselor and I had a moment where we came together and realized we couldn’t help her if she wouldn't help herself. It was a devastating moment. However, the Monday before graduation Jane sauntered into my class. I almost cried when I saw her, both from relief and frustration. I wanted to scold her out of frustration. I wanted to teach her a lesson, tell her it was too late, but of course I didn’t. I knew in my heart of hearts that if this girl didn’t graduate from high school now, her life would become exponentially harder. So I hugged her, told her she was giving me even more gray hair and asked her if she was serious about getting this done. She knew there was nothing more her beloved teachers and counselor could do for her except to tell her that if she dedicated the next 48 hours (almost literally) to her classes she would graduate. I remember receiving a text from the counselor two days before graduation. It was Jane in her cap and gown. I cried. I wondered if I would feel the same emotions the day I see my own son in his cap and gown. Probably not. I’ll be excited and proud, but he’s blessed with the expectation of graduating high school. However, for Jane, the expectation was for her to end up at a continuation school. To see this was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. The tears continued on graduation day along with the thank-you’s from both Jane and her family. In all "Godmother"-like fashion, my girl showed up in some fierce Christian Louboutins and her cap and gown. When I asked her about her shoes, she looked at me with her sassy-yet-adorable attitude and said, “What, Ms. R? Don’t you think with as hard as I’ve worked for this day I don’t deserve these shoes?” I replied, “You know you do.” Jane will forever have a special place in my heart. The year after she graduated, on the first day of school, she surprised each of us—her counselor, the other beloved teacher and me—with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a note which read, “Thanks for believing in me and not letting me give up.” It made my day and made me realize that Jane was in a good place. That is precisely what I wanted for her after graduation: To be in a good place.
Melissa Revuelta is a professional development coach for Long Beach Unified School District in California. Melissa works with educators and students to implement Common Core standards in the classroom.
Melissa taught science and history at Cabrillo High School for over 10 years. Previously, she was the advisor to