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Chicago

I Did Everything I Could to Reach This Student But I Still Lost Him to the Streets

Three years ago this September, Marquise* walked in on the opening day of school at Baker College Prep and carried himself with the quiet confidence of a lion with its pride. He was short and skinny, with hair in a kinked high-top, and laughed easily, honestly. I felt an instant connection with him, and the more we spoke, the more I liked him. That year we spent a lot of time together. Baker only had ninth-graders, so I was both Marquise’s advisor and teacher. As the year progressed so did Marquise. He was the ideal student: quick to participate, showing exceptional critical thinking and a genuine interest in learning. Of all my advisees, Marquise had the highest GPA and the fewest detentions. Halfway through the year he left this note on my desk:
Mr. Healy, I’ve never had a person in my life that has guided me like you have. I don’t think you know how much I learn from you even when you’re not looking. I don’t know my Dad, and I’ve always wanted to have a father figure to look up to. I’ve found one in you. Thanks for being my advisor.                                                                                                                                                                        –Marquise
I kept that note in my desk all year, and read it whenever I needed motivation to get through dark days. The year ended and the next one rolled around; Marquise was now a sophomore. Over the summer several new students transferred into our school and joined my advisory. I was particularly fond of one new student, Jeremiah. A tall kid with dreads down to his shoulders, he was constantly laughing, and a smile was never far from his face. His carefree demeanor reminded me of a surfer, or Kel from the movie “Good Burger.” As the year progressed Marquise started to accumulate absences: at first sporadically, but then more consistently. I would conference with him and guide him in every way I could think of: strict and stern, predictions of dark futures, relationship leveraging, what would your mom think, rewards for coming to school. But mostly, I just asked him, as someone I knew and cared about, what was happening. I couldn’t get an answer from him. Even worse, I couldn’t get the slightest read into the problem.

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I called his Mom and she spoke angrily about Marquise. She ended the conversation by saying, “If he wants to run around and play with guns there’s nothing I can do about it, I’ve tried my best.” Wait, what did she just say? Marquise, guns? There had to be some sort of mistake, so I asked her to come into school. The three of us had a conference and Marquise’s mom tried many of the tactics I did. She expressed how difficult it was for her, and how much she loved him. She told him of the mistakes she made that led to her current situation and how she didn’t want that for him, she pleaded, she begged. But, Marquise just sat there, and didn’t say a word. By now, Marquise was only coming to school once every two to three weeks. I started asking my other advisees about Marquise, and if they knew the root of the problem. They shook their heads slowly and said, “Mr. Healy, you don’t know who Marquise is.” This bit of information infuriated me. I wanted to shout that I did know Marquise, fully and completely! But when I reflected, I realized that maybe I only knew a part of Marquise, and I was missing something. I continued to press my advisees, but the anti-snitch culture of children subjected to years of abuse by authority is strong.

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Eventually, some of my boys told me there was a problem with another one of our advisees, Jeremiah. I almost laughed when this was revealed: Jeremiah and Marquise, two of the most kind, genuine students I have ever met. No, it couldn’t be true. I asked Jeremiah if he had any problems with Marquise, and vice-versa, and they both assured me there was no issue. Then Marquise stopped coming to school. When I arrived at his house, Marquise was on his porch with his brother, who had recently been shot, and about a dozen of their friends. As I approached, Marquise walked down the stairs of his porch, and the wind blew thick clouds of weed smoke toward us. “Mr. Healy, what’re you doing here?” Marquise said. “I wanted to check to see why you weren’t at school. We’re worried about you.” “I’ll be back next week. I just need to take care of my baby sister. My mom can’t afford a babysitter right now.” I left, and Marquise never came back to school. I haven’t seen him since. I later found out that both Jeremiah and Marquise were powerful gang leaders in their communities. Both were rivals, although I never even noticed a sour look between the two. The officers that work at my school told me that they were too smart for that; they knew the game too well. Like Marquise, Jeremiah stopped coming to school. The streets took them.

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In the world of education we often talk about our “locus of control,” which boils down to knowing what you can and can’t change. I always found this concept difficult to grasp. My experience told me the more you worked, the broader your impact. The more you cared, the stronger your effect. For months after Marquise left school I tried to get him back in every conceivable way, but nothing worked. I blamed myself; if I were a better advisor, I would have beaten the streets. I blamed our school; if we had better supports we would have beaten the streets. I blamed the system; if we had a more just society the streets wouldn’t need beating. Eventually I came to prefer the way Vonnegut expressed locus of control in his book “Slaughterhouse Five,” when he wrote, “So it goes.” Just because you can’t control things doesn’t mean you can’t feel for them. Vonnegut helped me understand that my love and care for Marquise don’t need to be contingent on my ability to impact his life. My reach is only so far. You can teach, you can inspire, but you can’t insulate someone from the community around them. Sometimes those outside forces win. So it goes. Not everything broken can be fixed, and just because something is broken doesn’t give me the right to fix it. I still think of Marquise every day. He has my love, my care, my memories. If Marquise ever needs me I’ll be there for him. But for now, so it goes, so it goes, so it goes. I’m not giving up on my student, but I can’t chase him anymore. I used to think those thoughts were at odds, love and letting go, but I now know they can exist together, and sometimes that’s for the best.
*Student names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Sean Healy is dean of students at Baker College Prep and a Teach For America alum. Previously he taught high school English for five years, three of them at Baker.

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