Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Letter to the Youth Correctional Facility

Dear Curtis,

What were you doing a week ago right now? Were you hanging out with friends on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Were you talking with your family, maybe your Dad, about what you had coming up in the week? Did you ever, for even a second, picture yourself sitting in jail in five short days? Did you ever think that so many lives would be devastated in a mere three days because you would have your hands on a gun?

What were you doing five years ago right now? I know the answer to that one. You were taking your time walking to my class every day and swearing over and over that the cigarette smoke I smelled was on someone else's clothes. You were sitting in my seventh grade class with your entire life ahead of you. Is this how you thought it would turn out?

Do you remember that our class song was Natasha Bedingfield's Unwritten? Do you remember that we talked about the lyrics - "Today is where your book begins; the rest is still unwritten" - over and over? Remember how I would play the song and we would dance and sing around the room? We were Glee before Glee was cool. We were Middle School Musical! You didn't so much sing and dance as stand in the corner and grin, looking at your crazy teacher and your classmates who would shout "THE REST IS STILL UNWRITTEN" until the windows shook.

Remember how we wrote timelines of our lives? We started on that day in that classroom and mapped out everything we thought we'd be doing the rest of our lives. You struggled with that assignment. While other students plugged in high school, college, playing professional sports, and getting married, you kind of stared at the paper. I tried to help you, encouraging you along, but you told me you probably wouldn't go to college, maybe wouldn't finish high school. You did want to get married and have a family...you wrote that on your chart, but other than that it wasn't very clear for you. I promised to help you feel more comfortable with schoolwork so that maybe college could be in your future. You reluctantly placed that on your chart. We compromised later when you erased "college" and wrote "community college."

But nowhere, Curtis, nowhere on that paper did it say "life in prison." Nowhere.

You may be surprised to know that I cried when I found out that you were arrested. I was with my grandchildren, taking them shopping for a "peasant" - that's what my granddaughter calls a "present." I read the news article on my phone and was so alarmed I scared two little girls with my immediate sobs.

Curtis, I cried in the Hello Kitty store.

I knew you were troubled in seventh grade, but I wasn't expecting it to come to this. You knew you were struggling, too, but I can't imagine that you ever dreamed your life would take this turn. I cried for three straight hours the day you went to jail. I couldn't stop thinking about our conversations about your life, how I never thought to say, "Curtis, you won't murder anyone in the future, will you? You won't shoot someone's father and grandfather in the back of the head for the $200 you'll get out of the cash register, will you?"

No, I never thought to ask that. And neither did the other teachers who've had their hearts broken over this news. I bet you'd be surprised that we've talked about you, sharing memories and stories of you, and that we can't even grasp what has happened. Curtis, we had dreams for you even if you didn't have dreams for yourself. And it hurts when dreams disintegrate...you must know how that feels now.

I have to ask you what I could have done to change the rest of your story. You knew I cared about you...you told me you didn't want to let me down. So what didn't I say? What didn't I do? What elements out there were stronger than a school full of encouraging teachers pulling for you? Whose voice was louder than mine?

I need to know so I can help the next troubled student write a different ending. Today is where his book begins...

12 comments:

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this letter. I know that it was difficult and it challenges teachers as it really gets to the core of why we came into teaching. I can imagine the great sadness that results from both the loss of life for the victim, the loss of the future for Curtis, and the questioning that has resulted in your life. As teachers we seek to help others and nurture them. I leave my classroom each day with the hope that my students will be better than than there were before the day started. After they pass into the next stage of their lives, it is my hope that the lessons that they learned will help them to be better and do better. Sometimes, that is not the case. While it is painful to confront this reality, I applaud for courageously doing it. The fact is that things like these do happen and as much as we, as teachers, seek to inspire and move our students forward, sometimes other factors influence the student's behavior. Let us not forget that we have many students who do move forward and do great things from raising a family to helping others. It is with a sad heart that I empathize with you for the loss associated with this crime for the victim, your former student, and you. We must continue to work to reach all our students as best we can and hope that our light will guide them in the future.

Sioux said...

My third graders are going to hear hundreds and hundreds of different voices--voices after mine, voices more appealing than mine--and I worry about things like this happening to them.

Heather said...

Cindi,
Would that every teacher could recall with such clarity and care the students who left their room to make the decisions that would dictate their future. We can only hope to keep those students feeling cared for in the time that they are with us. We hope that the year that student is with us has impact, but as you say, there are other voices out there conflicting with our own.

Much love and great admiration,
Heather

Lyn Fairchild Hawks said...

The fact you did these kinds of lessons, Cindi--that you took risks to bring joy, look the fool, challenge assumptions, and bust out of paradigms--is testament to what an amazing educator you are.

Nothing will change in our kids' lives, nothing, if we do the same-old, same-old, fear-ridden lessons. You're an artist. And you're a humanitarian. Two key qualities to being a great teacher.

Kathy Bundy said...

It is often the students who are most troubled that we are drawn to. Unfortunately, they're also the ones most likely to have an ending like this. We do pour our care and love into them and then turn them loose and hope for the best.

Most people you ask can tell you about THE teacher who made a difference. My guess is that you will be that teacher for many, many people.

Rachel Smith said...

I don't even know how I found your blog, but I do know that this letter cut me to the core. My 8th grade classroom often feels so safe, my kids so close to my heart— and then the pain when you hear a story about the next year or two years, that just doesn't match up with who they were in my room/in your room. Thank you for being so real, so raw..thank you for continuing even though you might get hurt again.

AmSmartGyrl said...

This is every teacher's nightmare. How can we be instruments for change for some and not for others? How can we lose the battle for that one child? How can we let evil prevail?

Cataplexy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mrs.Meyer said...

Oh WOW. I teach HS and recently 5 of our young men were involved in a robbery murder. They called and ordered Chinese food, shot the driver, stole his money, and went back home to eat the food. $46. That's how much these boys valued the life of the delivery man and themselves. $46 and bad choices.

I love this letter and, with your permission, will use it in my classroom this year. It's sad when life boils down to bad choices. And $46.

Cindi Rigsbee said...

@Mrs. Meyer,
I'm so sorry that you, too, know how it feels to see students throw their lives away for a small amount of money...and the fact that innocent lives are lost in the process...just devastating. Of course you have permission to use it. Let me know how it goes...

K. Svoboda said...

I teach 9th grade composition in Hartford, Ct. When those unfirmiliar with Connecticut think of it, they think of the richy area of Greenwhich--not Hartford. I was born in the city; my father was a police officer for the city. When I graduated from college, I returned to my city. The city is a "hot mess" as my students would say, a haven for crooks, and an education in crime. Many of students have to choose between coming to school and following rules verse making a quick buck on the street. Luckily, despite what some of my students could be doing, they come to school. Despite how they could behave in class (which is often not fabulous), it matters to them that when they listen or follow a simple rule that I know and acknowledge it. It is a terrible thing when you lose a student to a life that holds little promise. But with that sorrow comes so much more joy! When your students put their jacket away like they are suppose to in their locker, or finally start getting their homework done, or honor you with their presense after school so you can reteach Tuesday's lesson that they didn't listen to, or when they walk across the graduation stage . . . you lose something then as well. You lose a piece of yourself that you invested in someone else and their life holds promise and their potential is limitless. Thank you for providing a space for me to reflect on how I truly feel about the loses.

Cindi Rigsbee said...

Thank you, K Svoboda...it's good to know that there are others understand the pain, but at the same time I'm sorry you do. Thank you for your comments.