It Takes More Than One Victory
Blank stares. That was the collective response from my 4th period class when I first announced the upcoming school poetry slam. I wasn’t surprised. Most of my students had been reluctant to write poetry during our figurative language unit, let alone get up in front of the entire school and perform–or slam– original pieces.
A couple of days later, I was in the middle of explaining an activity that my 4th period was about to complete. Liam, who had been silently doodling for the first fifteen minutes of class, suddenly interrupted my instruction.
“Wait! What’s the poetry slam?”
I was a little confused at his sudden interjection that was obviously way off topic. I turned to him and saw that he was pointing at the board where I had written a list of upcoming events. “Liam,” I said with diminishing patience, “It’s the school poetry slam. I’ve been announcing it for a couple of days now.”
“Wait… like I could perform poetry in front of the whole school?”
Some other students mumbled to each other; some even laughed. “Wow, she only announced it like ten times, dude! Don’t you ever pay attention?”
“Yes, you can. Talk to me after class if you’d like to participate,” I said and directed the class back to the activity.
Liam and I had good and bad days. The good ones consisted of him engaging in the topic of the day and participating by raising his hand. The bad ones consisted of him bothering other students and refusing my invitations to participate. These days ended with me trying to get a positive response out of him by complimenting his writing, his insights, and ideas. But he would stare at me, shrug his shoulders, and give me the silent treatment for the rest of the period.
So when he told me he wanted to do the poetry slam, I was excited because I knew he was a talented writer, and I wanted him to have this chance to be successful. But honestly, I doubted that he would go through with it. He had given me no proof that he could be consistent, and we were well into the third term. Needless to say, I was shocked on the morning of the event when he raced up to me and told me how nervous he was. It was at this point that I realized he was actually going to go through with it.
A little while later, I was sitting at the judges’ table probably more nervous than Liam as he walked up to the microphone. It was as if suddenly I felt responsible for his success. I hoped I had helped him prepare enough. I hoped and prayed that I hadn’t led him to public failure.
But he blew everyone away.
He performed an original poem about his childhood. It was personal, emotional, and moving. At the end of the event, the other judges agreed that we give him second place. We decided to give first to a 9th grader who performed an original with power and confidence equal to that of Liam. Her performance had been a little smoother, but Liam definitely deserved second.
He was floored and absolutely ecstatic when his name was announced over the intercom later that afternoon. Just moments after the announcement during 8th period, he burst through my door with a look of shock on his face.
“Ms. Howard, did you hear that?!” I gave him a high-five, told him congrats and that he deserved it. He really did.
Winning second place meant he was a finalist and would advance to the district competition the following week. When I walked in the auditorium on the night of the district slam, Liam spotted me. Running up, he said he was surprised that I showed up, and I could tell he was happy that I came.
Once the program got started, I sat in the back and waited for Liam to go. He finally walked up on stage with confidence that he hadn’t had at the school slam the week before. Performing the same poem, but this time with more conviction, he didn’t stumble on any words. It was flawless. It was emotional. I knew the judges would love it.
I had to leave early, so I walked up to where Liam was sitting and told him he had done a terrific job. He smiled and said he’d let me know the results tomorrow at school. I got an email early the next morning from another English teacher from my school saying Liam had won first place and that he was glad I was there last night. Apparently Liam didn’t have any family there to support him and had walked there and then back home when the event ended late at night.
He was the youngest ever district champion–the first 7th grader to ever win. I was ecstatic. I never knew how happy I could feel for a student’s success. I wrote him a quick note telling him congratulations and grabbed a treat to go along with it. I planned on giving it to him during 4th period.
But before 1st period, he popped into my classroom. I congratulated him and handed him the note and treat. He was so excited and I could tell he didn’t know what to say. As the bell rang and he walked out of my room to get to his own 1st period, I paused to think about the fact that the first thing he had wanted to do when he got to school was come to my room and share his excitement. That surprised me. On most days it seemed that Liam just tolerated school. I wouldn’t have expected him to care so much about what I, a teacher, thought of his success.
Here was a student that I had given up on months before. I knew of his talent because I had read his writing. What I didn’t know of was his capacity to dedicate himself to something that he loved. Despite my giving up on him, he had brought himself up to become the district poetry champion. I felt like I had no part in that; he had gotten there on his own. Yet he still came that morning to see me. And later that day, he clutched that note I had written to him. In 4th period he set it on his desk, and I would catch him reading it during class.
To him, I was part of his success. I was his advocate.
If I stopped the story here, it would seem that Liam is now on a straight road to success. It would seem that this experience was enough to motivate him to behave in class, to turn in all of his work, to show respect to teachers, and to care more about his education. I want to say that this experience changed him, that I had some big impact on him and now he’s an excellent student.
But that would be lying and that would make it seem like all it takes is one victorious moment for a struggling student to realize his potential and start making good decisions in class.
The truth is, I still have good and bad days with Liam. One day he shows up to my study hall to do homework and says, “I come to your study hall because you’re my favorite teacher.” And then the next day, he’s all eye rolls and sarcastic comments; it’s all I can do to get him to pick up his pencil.
Looking back, I realize that I made mistakes. I had doubted Liam based on past experiences with him. This seems like the logical response to take, but I’ve come to understand that success in teaching doesn’t always stem from taking a logical approach. Sometimes you just have to hook students with compliments, encouragement, and faith, and they will pull through. Sometimes.
It’s a struggle to find approaches that consistently work for students like Liam because what motivates him seems so arbitrary. I always wonder how far to push him, or how much to invest. I find that I can toss him opportunity after opportunity to succeed, but he rarely accepts those chances and instead chooses to let them fall. Then again, there are also times when he bolts upright, snags the opportunities, and runs with them.