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Jon and I didn’t get off to a great start my first year at Agua Fria High School, just outside of Phoenix. When I asked students to share their career ambitions, Jon—then a junior—said “street pharmacist.” When the principal stepped in to observe me, Jon stood up and said, “This guy sucks. I can’t understand anything he’s talking about.” He called me Michelle, he stole my supplies, and at one point he convinced the entire class to walk out.
Each day, Jon seemed to defy Newton’s Law: For each of my actions, he shot back with a far more powerful reaction. I was tempted to let him work in the hallway every day.
But as each day passed, I realized that there wasn’t a quick fix for the challenges he posed—or heck, even a moderate-pace fix. Instead, it took patience pushed to limits not known to Calculus (sorry—math joke). I didn’t write him off. I gave him the same level of respect that I gave the rest of my class—and that allowed for just the tiniest bit of trust that we needed to move forward.
To observe our relationship was like watching grass grow: It happened without actually noticing a change at any given point. But with time, his respect for me grew. He earned a C on the final exam, and he started to talk about graduating. By the end of the year, I thought I had done a pretty good job.
Then came year two. I was looking over my rosters before the first day, and was shocked to find Jon back in my class—I was teaching only one of more than 20 sections of Algebra II. I called my friend in the guidance department to inquire about a backstory, and that’s when my outlook on our movement shifted forever.
Initially, Jon was assigned to a different teacher. However, he and his mother (whom I knew quite well by this time) came into the guidance office and asked—begged—to be in my class. Jon said I was the first teacher who ever cared about him, and who helped him to care about math—and life.
Up until then, I had always believed in the theory of “One Day,” but that moment provided me with observable, actualized evidence.
The second year was not simple by any means. But our relationship continued to grow. We played basketball after school. Jon became a leader in my class, confided in me about his life, and showed aspirations of attending college and earning a business degree. By the end of the year, he was in full stride. He scored a 100 on the end-of-course assessment, and he graduated from high school.
At graduation, he gave me a hug and a tear rolled down his face. (He still won’t admit it, but trust me—I saw it.) He said, “I owe you the world.” I turned to him and said the same thing. The truth is, I am not sure who of us grew more in those two years. His growth may have been more obvious, but I think the bigger gift was what he gave to me. Jon provided me with hard evidence of what long-term investment and inner strength can yield. He is a proof point guiding my vision for this work.
Jon now is enrolled in community college, working full time to pay his tuition. When I talked to him recently, he told me he was earning straight A’s. A tear rolled down my face. But don’t tell him, because there is no way I will admit it.
A 2012 Sue Lehmann Award winner for excellence in teaching, Mike Metzger is a Leadership Fellow in the Office of the President at Teach For America.