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BetweenTheEchoesLogo01-300x114An offshoot of Ed Trust’s Echoes From the Gap series, drawing stories of students from behind the statistics, this blog series shares shorter narratives — brief glimpses into classrooms and hallways — that give readers an opportunity to examine educator practices and policies through the intimate lens of student experience. All stories are based on interviews or first-hand accounts, but are shared with respect for the privacy of students and the adults around them.

 

It was the wrong, shouldn’t-have-been place.

Wrong, too-late time.

Wrong, smoke-filled car.

Wrong, hot Mississippi night.

Wrong moment’s decision.

He knows this now — wonders if he didn’t know it somewhere in his gut all along.

But the consequences would be without question.

He landed at the alternative school for a mandatory, 45-day sentence.

Work packets, self-guided computer programs, and roving teachers on loan from the district stretched thinly across students like him, who’d done wrong little things or bigger things and found themselves alone together in academic exile there. Trying to keep up on classes and concepts and the academic terrain they had to clamor over to maintain what little foothold they had on the way to something better. Somewhere better.

“When you’re there,” the 17 year-old shared, “you’re already at the bottom. You’re at alternative school. You’re at the bottom. You’re trying to build your way up.”

It was in this place, when everything and everyone felt wrong, that he met Mr. King — who would turn out to be the rightest thing in a long time.

Today, the teenager’s serious face springs into an all-tooth smile when he talks about him: “Oh, man, Mr. King. That’s my homeboy right there. Mr. King was one of my teachers in alternative school. He made me understand everything more.”

And not just more about his school work, which the young man credits Mr. King in helping him to master, but also more about his potential — and real worth.

“Mr. King, he pulled me out of class and he was just like, ‘You got a lot of potential, you know. But I keep hearing your name out here on these streets and stuff and — I don’t want to see you go down that wrong road.’ He said, ‘You have a million-dollar mind but you make 10-cent decisions.’ That was the craziest quote I ever heard. I was like, ‘Wow,’ you know? That one hit. That was stuck in my head for the rest of that day. I was just like (shaking head) … 10-cent decisions! Where did this man come from?!”

“You have to be real with them,” Mr. King explained when I caught up with him later that afternoon. “Letting them know that they are not their mistakes. I say, ‘That’s not who you are. But your mistakes have given you a reputation that you have begun to believe. You have to get past this idea of ‘I am what I’ve done,’ into ‘I am what I can be.’ I try to help them in that transition.”

“I was just like, ‘You know what, Mr. King? You’re right. I do need to start making better decisions,’” the young man admitted. “I can end up in jail like this. Things happen so fast. You never know what’s gonna happen.”

“I want them to know that they have something great to offer the world,” Mr. King shared. “I feel like if they realize that, if they know it, they’ll protect it. Because, they’ll protect those things that are valuable to them. But if they realized how valuable they were, I think they’d protect themselves and everything around them.”

“Mr. King’s just always helping me,” said the young man. “Asking me, ‘Where do you want to go to college? I can help you.’ It made me feel like somebody actually cared about me.’”

Now back in his regular school and getting on track to graduate, the young man reflects on his time at the alternative school — time largely shaped by Mr. King’s influence: “Alternative school helped me realize a lot of things. Alternative school opened my eyes to more opportunities. Alternative school opened my eyes to second chances, really.”

And when he talks about Mr. King it’s still in the present tense, even though he’s not his teacher anymore.

“Mr. King’s always checking on me,” he smiled. “I stay right by a basketball court. I’d be out there shooting by myself, he’ll come out there, shoot with me. Like, all of a sudden, there he’d be.”

Of course, when you talk to Mr. King and other educators like him, there is nothing accidental about their presence in these students’ lives.

It’s as deliberate as the turn of the wheel as Mr. King pulls out of the school parking lot at dusk each evening and takes the long way home, driving slowly past the courts and through neighborhoods where his current and former students live.

It was the wrong, shouldn’t-have-been place.

Wrong, too-late time.

Wrong, smoke-filled car.

Wrong, hot Mississippi night.

Wrong, moment’s decision.

But in the end, he found himself in the right place, with the right adult support — at just the right time.

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