“Don’t mess with him, and he won’t mess with you,” said the teacher, pointing to Ryan and handing me her class rolls as she resigned mid-year.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this comment marked my most defining experience as a teacher, the reason I stayed in the classroom for over a decade, and why I currently advocate for the needs of gifted and high-ability youth.
As I developed rapport with my new students over the next few weeks, I decided to investigate Ryan’s past. I found that Ryan maintained all A’s until fourth grade and continued to pass until middle school. Now failing everything, Ryan spent every day uninterested, asleep. But as I talked with Ryan, I noticed his advanced vocabulary and tendency to think abstractly and philosophically. I also observed his love of reading, not typical teenage books, but specialized ones catered toward his interests. I recognized his academic capabilities, passion for learning on his own terms, and potential for success. In the midst of all the other high-achieving students, the least likely to succeed exhibited the characteristics of a highly-gifted child. I decided to take a risk: I appointed Ryan as newspaper editor, a truly differentiated experience allowing him ownership over a project of interest.
Over the year, Ryan blossomed. Not only did he lead a hardworking staff and produce the first official newspaper, other areas of his life began flourishing as well: his grades in all classes, his appearance, his attitude. I will never forget the look of pride Ryan exhibited when he walked through the auditorium to receive the end-of-the-year journalism award. I couldn’t help feel proud too, as I made a positive difference in Ryan’s life. At the time, I had no idea just how powerful this moment would be. Six years later, after attempting and dropping out of high school, Ryan committed suicide.
I realized then that a teacher’s role extends farther than I ever imagined. All students come to school with academic, social, and emotional needs. However, many times students’ needs are overlooked. Gifted students seem to survive on their own. At-risk students sometimes seem hopeless. Cultural differences sometimes blind us to seeing true potential. And the teachers with the “don’t mess with him” or “she can survive on her own” attitude serve as part of the problem, a very large part. I don’t know for sure what happened to Ryan while in high school, and I don’t know the extent of his problems. But I feel that after his shining moment, he slowly slid back in the shadows of the crowd, only to disappear. I frequently think back to Ryan. Ryan taught me that, yes, students ultimately make their own choices. But the context and environment teachers create for students have tremendous influences. He taught me that students will work hard if one believes in them and their potential, and they respond well to kindness and fairness. So despite my disillusioned colleague’s warning on my first day of teaching, I learned from Ryan the extraordinary power of honoring each individual student’s needs.