By Roger Barbee
His last appearance in my English 12 class was about three weeks ago. The new semester, one filled with missed days because of snow, has been fragmented, but he came to class most days. He sat in one corner, and his native intelligence exhibited a keen understanding of a range of literature, and his mild manner was a pleasure to have in class. Then he stopped coming. Missed days turned into missed weeks, and one day this week, when I checked the class attendance list, his name had been deleted.
My first year of teaching was in a public school, but the other 40-plus years were in Catholic or independent schools. In such schools, where tuition is paid, most, if not all, of the students go on to college. In the school where I spent my last 10 years, all graduates attended college and 98 percent of those graduated with at least a bachelor's degree. That does not make those schools better than where I teach, but they are different schools, and they serve a different population. However, having a student drop out without a diploma is, I must admit, something of a shock. It leaves me with a sense of sorrow.
As children growing up in a mill town in North Carolina, we knew we could always, like our parents, go to work in the mill. However, our parents instilled in us a craving for an education as a way out of the mill. My mother hemmed washcloths on the second shift, and she was grateful for the job. After all, she had six children to feed and house. Yet, she and our teachers and coaches encouraged us to stay in school, get that diploma, and go on to college if we could.
During high school we were cautioned about the lure of a job and reminded that the little cash we earned was not a true salary for which we should later aim. After all, as my mother often reminded me, she was still paying the house and food bills. We listened, we worked at school, and we even whined or acted out some. But we finished, and I remember no one who quit before graduation. Some of that class of 1964 went to work in the mill, some to trades, some to the military, some to retail, and some to college. But, because of our thirst for education, we all earned the high school diploma.
Now, I don't want to give the impression that all of us in that class were perfect. We had a range of interests, talents, desires and behaviors. This fall, when we have our 50th reunion, it will be interesting to see and talk with so many of them, most of whom I have not seen since we graduated. We were not all scholars. In fact, my high school diploma was a general studies one, not a stamp of approval for a stellar high school academic career. However, it was enough to gain me entrance to a college, and there things changed when three professors introduced me to the world of academics.
I share all of this in order to let you know that I have been where my student is. I have felt the absolute frustration of boredom in a classroom where I could not see why it mattered. I have been in the gutter of despair when I saw no future. I have looked around and not been able to see any option but that which was in front of me - the mill. Yet, because of my mother and some teachers, I stayed with it and emerged into sunlight.
I have called his home. I have left messages on machines. Nothing has been returned. He is not dead because he has been seen on the streets of town. Maybe if we talked, he would change his mind and return to get his diploma. If we talked, I would remind him of his God-given intellect. I would remind him of his talent. I would remind him of his promise. But I would also remind him that his education is, like all of ours, his responsibility. It is his choice, and choices have consequences. I would remind him that he has what it takes. I would also remind him that the adage, "Too soon old, too late smart," is more that just an expression.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.