I often think about the ones that got away. Not fish – this is not that kind of story. And not lost love, mainly because I found the right one to occupy my thoughts.
I think about the students that quit, failed, or disappeared.
I’ve had several of those over the years.
Students that didn’t have time to study, weighed down by other life pressures—work, parenting, sometimes unimaginable trauma. Some I knew their stories. Most I didn’t. And, despite my efforts at intervention, it just wasn’t in the cards for them to be in school at that time.
So I wonder about those students sometimes. I’ve had a lot of them, so I don’t always remember names. I’d like to say I rarely forget a face, but I forget those too sometimes.
Others stick with you. Maybe I’d had a very memorable conversation, or I’m just unlucky enough to not forget that unimaginable trauma I mentioned. Those I remember… at least the face, or the situation.
Those situations…most of them would break your heart. Abuse. Addiction. More abuse. Failed relationships. Violence. Loss. And on and on.
Stephen, I remembered. He had showed so much hope.
I met Stephen when he was lucid and sober. He had proudly been about a week clean when he came to excitedly enroll at Heald College. He was going to change his life this time. He was going to get an education, a good job, and maybe reunite with his baby son. He was fresh from detox with inspiring goals. He showed early to my Success Strategies course to shake my hand and meet his classmates.
“Success Strategies…” I remember him saying. “…I sure need that!” He grinned. He was genuinely excited about this new path, this new plan.
This past Sunday, we held a Graduation ceremony for the class of 2019 at Warner Pacific University, where I work now. I arrived to the venue early and walked down to the faculty prep room.
“Mr. Kirby?” I heard from a distance, “Is that you? Wow! Mr. Kirby! One of my best teachers ever! And tallest!” It was Stephen. He stuck out a hand with a huge grin.
“You taught us about the world’s best peanut butter sandwich”, he said shaking my hand. He referenced an object lesson I would use in my unit about Values—where I would talk about how my version of a perfect peanut butter sandwich might differ from anyone else’s.
Stephen attended the first two weeks of class much like the first day. Arriving early, he would unpack his notebook and text, and line up his highlighters. He diligently took notes. He was eager to learn. He sat up front and actively participated.
Soon though, he would miss a class, or show up late. When he was there, I would notice he was wearing the same clothes as the session before. He mentioned he had lost his place to live.
Then one day, he was there, but he had the nods.
If you’ve ever experienced drug users, especially those who abuse opiates, they get the nods. Some students are just tired, but you can quickly learn to tell the difference.
I took a risk and decided to ask him about it. He had been so open the first couple of weeks, I figured I’d give it a shot.
“Hey…” I said after class, getting his attention. “Are you using again?”
At first I could see he wanted to be defensive. Then he looked ashamed.
“Yeah. I slipped up. But I talked with my counselor! I’ll make it…hey, I got to go. I’ll see you next week.”
Then Stephen disappeared. He stopped attending class and he was withdrawn from school and I thought I would never see him again.
Fast forward to last Sunday. Here he was, shaking my hand again, even more fervently than a decade prior. He was surprised to see me, he explained. Stephen worked for the venue hosting us. In fact, he was the one who was unlocking the doors for us to get in.
He looked healthy. Strong. Sober. Thriving. Working. In control. Happy.
“Thanks, Mr. Kirby. Thanks for teaching me—you were one of the best!” he exclaimed.
I didn’t get a chance to talk much more to him…he was busy, and I had somewhere to be, but he looked so good. I already knew some of his story…he had gotten clean, and looked to have stayed clean for a good while. I felt relieved. I finally had a happy ending to one of those stories that I wonder about.
Sometimes I worry that I didn’t do enough for students like Stephen. It hurts to know that there are some you just can’t reach.
I thought about that. And I thought about seeing Stephen, and I thought about perfect peanut butter sandwiches.
Sometimes, you may not even know it, but what you do is enough. And if you try and you love hard, “enough” might be all the difference for someone.