Failure in life is inevitable. We all know that. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try or how much time and effort we commit, things just don’t work out the way we would like. Our experiences as educators are no different. We can work and work and work with a student, but sometimes, it’s still not enough.
Several years ago I had a student that I tried to help. Obviously I’ve tried to help a great many students over the years, but this one in particular stands out from the rest. For the sake of privacy, we can call him Travis. I met Travis when he was a freshman in high school. He was a struggling student with a difficult home life. His parents were divorced, he lived with his grandmother, and he had multiple family members that were heavily involved with drugs and other criminal activities. I knew from the moment I met him that helping him would be an uphill battle.
However, as time went on, it seemed that I forged a connection with Travis. He would listen to me, he would do what I asked of him, and he seemed like he wanted to learn and to do well…most of the time. Everyone has bad days, and Travis was no exception. Despite all of his struggles, we managed to make it, more or less successfully, through his freshman year.
The following year, Travis wasn’t in any of my classes, but he still came to me regularly for help with his classwork or just to talk about the things that were going on in his life. Travis came by to see me every single day, without exception. His home life never seemed to improve, but he was still coming to school, and he was still hanging in there…for the most part.
When his junior year rolled around, Travis was back in my class. Now in our third year of working together, I felt that we were truly making significant gains. He had not passed all of his classes in the previous years, so he was a little behind in his credits, but it was nothing unmanageable. So our work continued. We doubled our efforts, I had other teachers send Travis to my room during their classes with his work, and he sometimes even stayed after school to get extra help. Again, we made it through the year more or less successfully.
Then, Travis’s senior year came around. He was still credit deficient, but again, it was not unmanageable. However, I noticed some changes in Travis. Looking back now, if I’m completely honest with myself, I saw these changes beginning the previous year. He had started getting into trouble and had even been arrested a couple of times. He was on probation, and his attitude had become much more careless. Despite all of this, he was still coming to school, still coming to me for help, still coming to me for advice. I brought him McDonald’s biscuits in the morning and gave him snacks during the day. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t see him. I really thought he was going to make it.
Then, one day, my cell phone went missing. I searched frantically for it. I knew I had left it in my desk drawer, but it wasn’t there. I retraced my steps around the building, I emptied every pocket of my work bag, and I dug through every nook and cranny of my car, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I finally realized that my phone had been stolen. Later that day, Travis came by my room, and I told him what had happened. Immediately, he started raging about how ridiculous it was that anyone would steal anything from me, that I was the nicest person he knew, that I would give someone the shirt off my back if they needed it.
The next morning, a girl that I had worked with for a couple of years came into my class and asked if my phone had been stolen, and I told her that it had. “Do you want to know who took it?” she asked. I was stunned. How could she possibly already know who had taken it? I hesitated. “Yes,” I finally said. “It was Travis. He was at my aunt’s house last night. I overheard him telling my uncle that he needed to pay back some money for some drugs he was supposed to have sold. He took your phone so he could sell it.” I looked at her incredulously. I had a VERY hard time believing Travis, of all people, would have stolen my phone. Suddenly, my door opened, and another student came in. “Did you tell her?” he said. He could tell by the look on my face that I already knew. “I’m sorry Ms. Rogers,” he said, “but he told me the same thing. He told me not to tell you, but you deserve to know. You can’t trust him anymore.”
I thanked both of them for their honesty, and they left. I just sat there at my desk, staring at the wall. How could this have happened? How could Travis have done this to me? I had given him my food, I had given him my money, I had given him my time, I had given him my greatest effort. I still couldn’t believe it was true. But as the day wore on, I didn’t see Travis one single time, which was very, very unusual. A couple of days went by, and I still didn’t see him. A few days after that, he got into a fight and was sent to alternative school. The kids told me he did it on purpose because he couldn’t bear to look at me after what he had done. Finally I knew it was true.
I saw Travis only a few more times after that, and always from a distance. He made sure to keep as much distance as possible between us. Within a couple of months, he dropped out of school entirely, and I have heard basically nothing about him since. I often wonder what happened to him, what he’s doing, if he has a family now, if he’s happy. I have never felt like more of a failure as a teacher than with him. Even now, years later, the hurt and the disappointment and the shear bewilderment of it all still lingers.
At first, I felt like giving up. I felt hopeless. I felt ineffectual. I felt like a failure. Eventually, though, I started to see the situation more clearly, and I realized that I was only one person (even though I certainly wasn’t the only person trying to help Travis), and that quite often, other influences are going to be stronger on people than mine could ever hope to be. I wanted so badly to save him, but he didn’t want to be saved. At least not then. Maybe one day he will.
We can share people’s joys and sorrows; we can help them through the good times and through the bad. We can give people the very best of ourselves, but even then, sometimes it’s still not enough. I can’t control anyone but myself, and sometimes that’s incredibly frustrating. But I have finally come to understand that each and every one of us has to make our own way in the world, even my students. We have to forge our own paths in life. We have to learn who we are and what we want out of life. And in order to do that, we have to succeed, and we have to fail. Both are necessary. Both are inevitable. Whether we win or we lose, we should still never stop trying.