One glaringly obvious quality of mine is that I often give off a bad first impression. But more so, I tend to completely misread others during the first encounter. And so it was true with my student-apprentice Joey that day. Teachers would understand that there is a short list — regardless of how long one has been teaching — of students we would list under the category of “most influential on my teaching.” For me, it’s certainly fewer than 10. Boy am I glad that first impression was sorely off-target because Joey has comfortably sat on this list since that 2005-06 school year — my second year in the classroom.
It wasn’t necessarily the quality of his work. In fact, as a journalism student of mine, this 15-year-old didn’t write much better than many other 15-year-olds I taught. Instead, the way in which he went about the process of learning struck me as unusual for a boy his age. He often sidled up to my desk not wanting to know what he may have done wrong on his writing assignment, but rather asking what habits he could practice to become a better writer. For Joey, the grade on the paper factored little into his definition of success. It mattered more that he learn the trajectory to higher achievement.
And the somewhat abrasive, too-cool-for-school, has-all-the-answers, humor-injecting attitude that I brought to the classroom as a 23-year-old proved exactly what Joey thought would help him achieve at a higher level.
So it went that as Joey took to my teaching, I took to his learning. We talked furiously and enthusiastically about writing, editing, design. But over the course of several months, it became more about leadership. I learned about his love for family and the emotional toll it takes on him when that life at home isn’t exactly picture-perfect. I learned of his love of God, though it was merely a mustard seed of faith at the time.
When I knew I would be teaching at a high school across the state line the next year, I first thought of Joey. I had looked so forward to seeing his inevitable growth both academically and personally. And, perhaps selfishly, I lamented that I would miss out on what I had yet to learn about myself from him.
The years betray good intentions of keeping in touch. Oh, we’ve attempted. An email here. A random lunch there. A wedding gift through the mail. But a few weeks ago, I received a package in the mail. The inside bore a Casa Hogar Coffee Co. mug — courtesy of Joey’s latest philanthropic business venture. A letter clung to the box. In it, Joey proudly described the mission and purpose behind his company. And as he typically described life changes of his, he included that he wasn’t sure if this was his calling or if he would be doing this five years from now. But he, in a round-about way, feels confident that this is what he is supposed to be doing right now. The journey he is on now, he wrote, includes and respects the lessons gained from his time in my classroom, lessons he said he would never forget.
What continues to make me smile (or smirk?) is that he lives his life hard. There are no wasted minutes. I’m not lost on the irony that I sit here in a dark den typing a blog to no one. Impressive too is his humble nature of knowing where he came from, the people he has encountered, and truly understanding that we are who we are because of the people we’ve surrounding ourselves with. Too often, I credit my achievements to my own hard work. And while self-reliance certainly is a respectable trait, Joey’s letter reminded me not to forget those who taught me — parents, teachers, students, friends, enemies. All of them.