I have difficult students from time to time. In College Algebra, it’s generally children who are very inefficient with their work time. One kid like to engage his table in conversation. And they’re usually pretty interesting conversations, though it comes at the expense of productivity. This kid is generally pretty polite and will get business taken care of eventually, asking lots of good questions. Sometimes though, when nudged, they throw up a wall. Saying things like “just let me fail, this is my decision” etc. I stay pretty calm through this, citing reasons why letting this kid do nothing isn’t in their best interest. Other kids jump in to help me, though I don’t want it escalating. Kids don’t respond well if ganged up on in full view of a class. Most of the room was lost in their work, for context. This “incident” if you can call it that was isolated to one table.

Eventually I left the kid alone and finished out the class period. Later I took them aside and we had a chit chat. Similar shut down incidents have been rare since, though it still happens. During the initial discussion though, one of the kids at the table asks me “how can you be so patient?”

Four months ago, 7:15am, my birthday. I’m setting up for the day. Phone rings. It was E, a former student, asking “have you heard?”

Spring 2012. I was starting year two of what was to be a 3 year side gig coaching 8th grade soccer at one of our feeder middle schools. I finished up work at the high school and drove down the street in the afternoons. E was a very hard headed young man with a temper. He had a pretty constant string of discipline issues throughout 7th and 8th grade. But he was good at sports and they helped him from being a complete lost cause. The previous year when he was in 7th grade we had a number of incidents with him at games. I was hoping we wouldn’t have a repeat of these incidents.

M was new to the team. He hadn’t been allowed to play in 7th grade, despite the kids saying he was the best in the school. Finally, the athletic director let him tryout in 8th grade. During tryouts we did some shooting drills. M kicked the ball with more certainty than I’d ever seen. He was going to be special.

I was not a fan of this team. There were constant discipline issues with them. Practices had frequent disruptions. Eventually, a number of them dropped out of school. Some transferred. One went on to rob a car dealership a week before graduation. Every time I’d hear about the new nonsense they’d gotten in to, I wasn’t surprised.

But they’d win games. This particular middle school never won games, in anything. Suddenly we had a shot at being undefeated. Before the game against the primary rival I told M, we get the lead you’re dropping to defense. M nodded aggressively and said absolutely. He knew that’s what we were going to need. Sure enough, we were winning late. M drops back and frustrates the other team for 10 minutes. First win in anything over the rival school in a long time. Eventually, we completed the undefeated season and won middle school district. Some years later the middle school would hang a banner in the gym for this team.

M comes over to the high school and plays for me in the 9th grade. His frustrating teammates and even more frustrating ones from other middle schools follow. I didn’t enjoy a lot about this season. Except for M. He never caused problems. We didn’t have as much success in 9th grade, but he’d put the team on his back when required, you never even had to ask.

M and E are now seniors. Both have made varsity. E just now, M since 10th grade. The frustrating teammates were all gone, washed out because of discipline issues. It was a nicer time. Results wise though, the team wasn’t in great shape. February, M starts missing practice, which was unlike him. We think he has the flu. Later I’d learn his teammates thought he was making excuses because they aren’t doing well.

Late February and M hasn’t been in school for a while. It was leukemia. Treatable, but still. M responds well to the treatment. He is unable to walk at graduation, though he does graduate. He is mentioned in one of the speeches.

Months later, M is strong enough to come to soccer games, and has started working. He says he feels better and can even run a little bit. Late January 2018 I see M again at a soccer game. Again, seems ok, though he doesn’t say much. M wasn’t much of a talker. E was there too.

“No” I say to E. “What happened?”

It’d been 6 months since I’d seen M. Now he was dead. Whether the leukemia was back, or there was a bad response to medicine, or if he’d even been taking his medicine no one knew. After two and a half years, the leukemia won.

I went to the memorial service, but I couldn’t look at him. That’s not a memory I wanted. I’d rather glance at his team pictures on the wall.

Kids lives are complicated. Sometimes it seems the lives of kids I work with are unfairly complicated. The 50 or so minutes we spend with them are just a small window into what they might be dealing with. The kid who tells me “let me fail” got that way for a reason, not because of something I did personally. Those tough seasons with E and M taught me what matters. Winning some argument with a kid choosing to be stubborn does not. There are better ways.

Goodbye, M. ❤️

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AuthorJonathan Claydon