My favorite event of the school year is graduation. But it’s not the graduation you are picturing. I love the graduation ceremony of our local alternative high school, the kind of school at which many teachers scoff. You know the one: filled with the “problems” and misfits that weren’t smart enough, motivated enough, good enough to cut it with the “good students.” Why do I love this alternative graduation so much? Because it holds a deeper meaning for those graduates. It is filled with students who had been discarded. The caps and gowns are worn by mothers, fathers and grandparents walking the ceremony for their children and grandchildren. They are worn by graduates who battled illnesses and balanced full-time jobs just to get their diplomas. And the crowd. The auditorium is filled with a diverse team of supporters, from the “People of Wal-Mart” whose lifestyle our society mocks online, to philanthropic business owners, to a few former “regular teachers” who still hold pride for their past students. What the ceremony, above all else, helps me realize is how often I, as a teacher, treat high school as the easiest phase of life. As an adult who has survived the battle of adolescence, I find myself downgrading—sometimes with a touch of smugness—the tensions of struggling teenagers. I think, “You have no idea how lucky you have it in high school! Stop whining and be grateful!” What if, in downgrading their hardships, I am undermining their resilience rather than cultivating it? I look across the faces of the two dozen students in my 10th grade English class, and I realize they possess life stories I have never experienced—not even as an adult. I don’t know what it’s like to be one of them. I don’t know what it’s like to be a freshman and have my mother die from alcoholism. I don’t know what it’s like to have to give up athletic passions—a decade of love and training—because my next concussion could kill me. I don’t know what it’s like to be so overwhelmed with anxiety that I can’t get out of bed, to feel so much internal pain that slicing my arms open brings relief. I don’t know what it’s like to have to hide my sexual orientation from my peers for fear of constant mockery and humiliation. I don’t know what it’s like to be fatherless, to be poor, to resort to selling drugs to help my mom pay the electric bill. I don’t know what it’s like to have a lifelong learning disability, to have struggled over and over and over and over as a system passes me along. I don’t know what it’s like to bounce from house to house as parents split over drug addictions and prison sentences, to be treated like a kid but forced to parent young siblings. These are just a handful of lives that walk through my door the second period of each day. Even with the knowledge I have, how often do I think things—say things—like, “Well, if you had spent your time reading last night you wouldn’t be failing this quiz” or “You’ll keep struggling until you put school first?” My priorities are not their priorities. The fact that some of these kids even show up to my class—even if it’s a few minutes late—should be worth my gratitude rather than my condescension. Yet the fact that some of these kids are dealing with hardships I could never imagine, is no reason to coddle them. It is no reason to pity them. No reason to not hold them to the standard I know they can attain. They are tough. They are gritty. They are resilient. I still believe that school can awaken a future beyond their current nightmares. I still honor school as an arena to build social skills, life skills and learning skills, and that a high school diploma need not be a final step. I still know that what we do as teachers matters. Now, more than ever. But, I must recognize that rigor and compassion are not dichotomies. Consequences and caring can co-exist. I need less lecturing and more listening, more empathy and less assumption. If I—if we—respected their lives of resilience rather than criticizing their cries of discontent, maybe, possibly, the experience of school wouldn’t be so daunting. Maybe, possibly, those caps and gowns would remind us how honorable it is make it to that graduation stage, no matter what the path.
Chase Mielke is a public high school teacher, as well as trainer and instructional coach, in Plainwell, Michigan.
Chase Mielke is a public high school teacher, as well as trainer and instructional coach, in Plainwell, Michigan. He was a 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year nominee, and is a creator of an award-winning Positive Psychology program for at-risk 10th graders. He blogs at affectiveliving.wordpress.com.