Simone M. was in my ninth- and tenth-grade math classes for two full years – from 1999 through 2001. She was smart, attractive, funny and personable. She was a consistent 90+ student.
When I was teaching special education before I switched over to mathematics fifteen years later, I bemoaned the fact that none of my students would ever become a teacher, a social worker, a business owner, a noble laureate. Of course, these were undoubtedly unrealistic expectations, but I also realized that my attitude about what I considered their depressing futures traveled hand-in-hand with my incipient burnout. By teaching “normal” children in “regular” classes, I’d always have the chance to be filled with pride about their success. And for Simone, who had so much going for her, I had so much hope.
One time in class, I had written a problem on the chalkboard. When there was a collective groan about how hard the problem seemed, I said, “Man, this one is so easy, it makes my stomach hurt.” With perfect timing, Simone piped up, saying, “Yeah, and that’s a lotta hurt!” There was sudden quiet. What was the teacher going to do? One beat … two beats … and I started laughing. I had to. It was a great line … and still is.
But I also thought that she was too precocious for her own good. When she accomopanied her mother to my classroom on Open School evening, there seemed to be a role reversal – Simone was running the show, and her mother could only sit back, agree and acquiesce.
I was able to keep up with Simone’s progress from afar. I taught only two classes each day; the rest of the time, I was our school’s program chairman. Of my many computer-based responsibilities, besides taking care of students’ grades and transcripts, I had to schedule our 3000-student high school twice each year. It was challenging to deal with singletons and doubletons – classes taught only once or twice each day – which mostly affected students in honors, advanced placement, and other high-level classes. Simone’s name often came up and I had adjust her schedule, and the schedules of many of our other top students. It was a continual reminder of what a superb student she was.
In early June of the spring 2002 term, I noticed Simone hanging out with her friends in the main lobby. She was obviously pregnant, and strutting around proudly in a white tank top with her big belly protruding. I was devastated. What was she thinking? Couldn’t she have had an abortion? Why was she throwing her life away? Didn’t they think about the consequences of her actions? What the fuck was wrong with these kids?
A few minutes later, I ran into the head of guidance. She was as disappointed and saddened about Simone as I was. Additionally, she revealed that Simone was destined to be the school’s valedictorian. We knew that top students from inner city high schools got special notice and consideration from many colleges. But this was probably no longer to be.
At the end of June, I finally graduated from high school after 30 years of service, and at the ideal retirement age. It was the perfect time to say good-bye. The school was going to downsize, close, and simultaneously reopen as a campus for three smaller schools now imaginatively named the Cultural Academy for the Arts and Sciences, It Takes a Village Academy, and the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School. Also, the computer programming environment was set to be replaced by a supposedly newer and better – read “more difficult and rigid” – system that I’d have to learn and adapt to, which was so disheartening because I’d already tweaked the old system which I could also access from home after school and during the summer.
Today, I searched the internet and found a picture of Simone from the high school’s 2003 yearbook. I don’t know if she had actually graduated although she did appear in the picture wearing the usual cap and gown costume.
I know that I’m rather judgmental about the life-altering decisions that teenagers make and the actions they fall into, and that they often don’t realize exactly what they’re doing and what the consequences might be. We simply hope that they’ll make it out of their vulnerable years with a happy and satisfying future ahead of them.
So, Simone, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, I wish you the best. And that you don’t have “a lotta hurt.”