My One Wish: To Be Superman

To DelvinTyreNickJoshLynwood and Anthony, Chad, Anthony E., Cornett, Jason and Tasha, Steven and DominiqueShavon, and those whose names are unreleased:

I think of you guys often. Each of you were in one of my classes, on one of my teams, or in one of my programs at some point during the near decade I worked in the high school you attended.

But I failed you.

You weren’t one of the kids for whom I fiercely advocated much beyond my scheduled time with you. I didn’t go to your home to tell to your mom or grandma I believed in you. I didn’t ask you to come to my room during my planning block so you could do your homework in peace. I didn’t ask you to eat lunch in my office to talk about college, the world, your potential, or to simply stay out of trouble.

And I didn’t collaborate with your other teachers to unearth your hidden talents and discover common challenges. I didn’t teach you how to navigate the system of schooling. I didn’t connect you to key community members to be there if I couldn’t. I didn’t tell the principal and your teachers to let me know each and every time you slipped. I didn’t introduce you to my wife down in the English department so you’d have another place to go. I didn’t accompany you to the police station if you got in trouble.

I simply didn’t do the things for you that I did for many of your classmates or team-members that faced the same challenges.

But I would have.

It wasn’t a deliberate choice—I just ran out of time. And, ultimately, I ran out of physical energy and emotional stamina. Knowing I had the ability to make a larger impact on your lives, which perhaps could’ve altered the path of self-destruction upon which you traveled, also made it hard to sleep at night. I finally had to take a short break from education.

I’ve since returned and am working in another district. I’m not in a classroom anymore, or even a building, but I think about getting back “in the trenches” often. I happened to spend some time last year as a substitute principal at one of our elementary schools. While there, I met and learned lots about a young fellow and the home enviroment from which he comes to us. He was troubled and angry.

He reminded me so much of you.

I made a few calls to get him some support both inside and outside of school, but, like my time with you, I felt largely powerless. When I walked out of that school one afternoon, I cried.

I cried because I know.

I know that regardless of how hard we try, or how much we care, or no matter how high we can get his test scores—this child’s future is vulnerable. Maybe it’s indeed impossible for us to help each child navigate the perils of poverty in the short time we have them in our care. But I believe, with all my heart, we must try. “If not us, who? If not now, when?”, as someone whom I deeply admire likes to quote.

I learned from that brief elementary school experience that I’m not quite ready to go back into the building, and, honestly, I’m not sure I ever will be. But I promise that I’ll never forget you and what you taught me. And I’ll always fight like hell to provide the best educational opportunities for every student.

You’ll never know the madness of educational policy propaganda, hostility, and political ideologues from both sides throwing garbage in the path toward that end. But it’s worth fighting through. Lives depend on it.

I just wish I could’ve been your Superman.

Comments 11

  1. Ira Socol September 27, 2010

    I’m stunned to find no other responses. Well, no, I’m not stunned. I understand. This is as painful to respond to as it is to read.

    Because, though we live in America, which deeply embraces the Superman myth, we believe in “him.” And we find ourselves falling short in comparison. And that is simply not fair to us, because there is no Superman, and the greatest heroes, well, they’re just humans like us, humans who kept trying, but who failed more often than they succeeded.

    So all I can do is share the story of mine that came to me as I read this…

    Ash Wednesday

    We stop at Saint Dominic’s off Gun Hill Road right after loading the guy with the heart attack on Edenwald into an ambulance. “Please guys,” we beg the paramedics, “sure he’s dead but if he’s dead here it’ll take us over an hour to get this taken care of, and you can just dump him on the E/R.” We kneel before the priest and take communion and are blessed with the ashes. Then, still deeply hungover from Fat Tuesday alcohol consumption, we run to the “shots fired” call where Edson ends at Strang, and find the kid dead in the tall brown grass of what was supposed to be a park.

    The kid is maybe ten, well later we’ll know he wasn’t even, but at that moment, at the point where Colin says, “oh fuck” and I come over and see the thin body with the blood leaking from a temple, we think “ten,” not knowing that he was tall for his age.

    A minute later I realize there’s a gun in the grass as well, a silver .22 automatic, and I reach into my pocket and pull out gloves and hand one pair to Colin who takes them without moving his eyes from the boy’s frozen face and I pull them on, silently because I fully believe that noise will rob this place of the desperately needed sanctity and I kneel down and and am about to lift this weapon into my hands when its location and position scream to me and I leap to my feet and start backing away, muttering, “holy fucking shit, no.”

    There are no parents. No one knows where any father might be. Mom’s in jail. When we finally ask enough questions we find the place Grandma lives, a basement apartment a block away, and she is dead in her bed. It seems natural, she clearly went in her sleep.

    “I guess he couldn’t take it no more,” another third grader tells us. “He was gettin’ picked on a lot at school. The teacher didn’t like him neither.” “Oh,” I say, “did he like his Grandma?” “Loved her,” the kid says, “she dead?” “I guess she must of died in her sleep,” I say without thinking about who I’m talking to. “Then that’s why, he must’a found her and give up.”

    “You ok?” I ask him. “Yo, po-leece,” he says, “I’m jus’ fine.”

    I look around. The cold winter sky. The low brick rowhouses. The projects towering over there. The abandoned, burnt cars near the edge of the park. I walk back to where the body still rests, touch the ashes on my face, bend down once again, this time making a tiny cross on that cold forehead.


  2. Tomaz Lasic September 28, 2010

    Chad, I choked up reading your post.

    I hear you loud and clear across the oceans and across the so damn similar divides of what children and us, adults, have been becoming subject to.

    ‘I promise that I’ll never forget you and what you taught me’

    Now that I’m out of school (a very similar one you describe), that is a line I’d like to say to so many kids at my old school I’ve come across and who were branded ‘no hopers’ (in the multitude of self, peers, teachers & system), who were incredibly resilient but often enacted the cancerous label, kids who didn’t need the ‘Superman’ (yeah, I heard) or some ‘knight in shinning armour’ – just a human being who’d listen and offer a few things no school system ever measures. Things like safety, hope, freedom…

    Thank you



  3. Tony September 28, 2010

    Thank you for this post, Chad. As I read your words, I see the faces of all of those that I hold myself accountable for. Some I now see behind bars whole others lie just under their potential, and I can still remember each moment that I missed…probably even more vividly now than I could at the time, as hindsight really is 20/20. I know that we shouldn’t blame ourselves as harshly as we do for missing those moments, but that doesn’t help me shake the “what if” feeling.

    All we can do now is keep pushing ahead, keeping our laser-line focus where it needs to be- which is square on supporting the kids that need us more than ever right now.


  4. Cathy Brophy September 28, 2010

    A colleague once gave words of encouragement:”Remember why we’re here; administrators will come and go, board members will come and go; policies will come and go-and we’ll still be here, in the classroom making a difference. You may never know the difference you made.” I remember those words and think of her often. While I have moved on, she is still in the classroom making a difference, one student at a time.


  5. Paula Hughes Coyner September 28, 2010

    I am sitting here with tears streaming down my face as I recalled the ones that I failed as well. I, too, have moved on but now wonder, should I venture back? Or is there something better I could do to support those still in the trenches? Your words will linger with me a long time.


  6. Molly McCloskey @ ASCD September 28, 2010

    What a courageous and humble post this is! I too can name those I failed (as well as the joyous success stories) and am shamed by the lack of energy and lack of knowledge in the moment that contributed to those failures. My hope for all of us who have moved out of the classroom, some into other roles in education, some out of the field all together, is that we remember not just the names, but the human conditions of those young people and that we act in whatever role we now serve to meet their needs. I hope that each of us as community members, parents, educators, policymakers, and just plain grown ups “get the backs” of those in the classroom so that they are not alone in ensuring that their students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

    We at ASCD stand with you and with all who care about kids! Thank you for the moving reminder.


  7. Matt Guthrie September 28, 2010

    Chad. it’s heart wrenching to read stories like this, especially when most of us have been there as well. I feel your struggle to go back into the classroom when you’re not sure if you have the emotional energy necessary to do so. This current held so many promises for me as a teacher and yet I feel the most emotionally drained I’ve ever felt. Teaching is hard like that. I just wish everyone who wants to reform education knew what it was like.


  8. Linda September 28, 2010

    Very touching post, Chad. I’ve yet to hear anyone mention, in all of the televised conversations on TV, the tears we shed on behalf of students we have been unable to reach. The horrible feeling that we are have been unable to help kids who so desperately need not only all sorts of academic remediation, but also a great deal of support outside of class, is familiar to many. You articulated it beautifully.


  9. Chad Ratliff September 29, 2010

    All- Wow. I’ve been overwhelmed and moved by the response to this post. So appreciative of the kind words and other stories being shared. It’s such an important piece of the puzzle that I feel is being left out of the larger education conversation. I’m so happy it resonated-and I hope we can keep it moving.



  10. Pam September 30, 2010

    I had the chance to sit on a panel discussion with your former superintendent who also has now left Martinsville. He spoke with great passion about the young people of Martinsville and what he had learned from them about hope. He talked about the 22% unemployment rate in Martinsville- highest in Virginia and perhaps one of the higher rates in the U.S. – and people who for generations were employed in jobs that now belong to people in other countries. He shared that only 68% of the citizens are high school grads compared with over 80% plus for Virginia. He mentioned that the percentage of families living below the federal poverty line was more than double Virginia’s. Children qualifying for federal free and reduced lunch services is over 70%- well above the Virginia average. He also noted that 7/10 children live in single parent homes.

    These facts coupled with your intense post about your own efforts to staunch the “bleed out” of young people in Martinsville represents the hidden history of America’s schools. Poverty does matter even when young people are served by three high-efficacy teachers in a row. Even if we get kids living in poverty over the test-curricula hurdles, it has come through intense and costly intervention and “remediation” services. I heard a resource utilization study statistic recently- that for every dollar deferred in a public institution for facility repairs, it will cost $3 down the road on average to make that repair. In other words, the cost of keeping up is cheaper than catching up. I happen to think those stats might apply to our children who enter school behind the kindergarten “starting line” as well.

    The former superintendent of Martinsville said he if won the lottery (since he’s not a member of any billionaires’ club), he’d invest in early childhood services first – maternity/paternity education, child care, health care, pre-school programming. He believes the return on investment would pay off for a lifetime to taxpayers for sure, but most importantly, for the future Devons, Chads, and Tashas who live in communities all over the United States. However, I fear, in our society we are willing to settle for “bleed out” – to take the risk and absorb the expense of losing our precious young citizens and caring, competent teachers just like you. It’s not just a matter of return on investment to borrow from the business world; it’s a matter of national security to sustain democracy, build a competitive workforce, and contribute globally. We have no time, teachers, or children to waste.

    Thank you for sharing your poignant story that puts faces in front of the data- such a loss of potential and future.


  11. Pingback: Edublog Nominees | A Space for Learning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s