The Sort-of-Scientific Method

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 17 2013

The First

Day 117: As you may know, I write something in this space every single day of the school year. This is my 117th entry of the 2012-13 school year. This entry is different from most, because I wasn’t in school for most of the day. I spent most of my day in East Providence, at the funeral of Michael Andrew Payne.

I wrote a little about this Monday, so I’ll keep the back story brief. Before entering the classroom as a Teach For America corps member, I worked at an educational nonprofit called Year Up. Year Up is a one-year program for 18-to-24-year-olds that provides six months of class work in finance or technology, and then connects its students with six-month internships at such companies as Bank of America, State Street and Wells Fargo. The idea is that after the one-year program, students have acquired the skills, knowledge and meaningful on-the-job experience necessary to continue an upward career and educational trajectory. If you haven’t heard of Year Up, remember the name; it is a truly incredible organization.

My actual job title was “Special Projects Associate,” and in that role, I helped the organization craft a new five-year strategic plan. This was an incredibly meaningful professional role, particularly for a then-24-year-old. However, most of my strongest memories from Year Up concern my interactions with students. Year Up encourages every single one of its employees to work with students – for example, as a mentor, or to be a mock interviewer for students.

I started off as a writing tutor. From there, I became a mentor. Within six months, I was a full-blown member of a “learning community,” the group of about 40 students and 12 staff members who go through the year-long program together and support each other toward graduation. This meant I was with students pretty much every day, even if that meant just coming over for lunch and asking how tech class had been that morning, or whether students were getting enough sleep.

Every staff member of a learning community serves as an advisor to two or three students. Those are the students you are most accountable for, the ones you check in with consistently to make sure they are completing their assignments, coming to the program on time, and generally building the skills and traits of successful people and aspiring professionals.

Mike was one of my first two advisees. Mike was smart, and he always seemed to be smiling, but he had his struggles. He could be quick to anger. He could become sullen and withdrawn, for no apparent reason. He placed an incredible level stress on himself, and told me frequently that he knew, he just knew, that he was destined to do something great in life.

Mike and I quickly became close, and Mike became my mission. I coached him on his leadership, encouraging him to turn his natural gregariousness into a voice for others to hear and follow. Over time, I saw him raise his hand more to contribute at our week-ending Friday Feedback sessions. I helped Mike with his struggles in Business Communications class – think English 101, but with a business focus – because writing was not his strength, and he struggled to see eye-to-eye with the teacher. As I edited his writing, and taught him the wonderful world of semi-colons, I tried to teach him that his teacher wanted the best for him, he just had to meet her halfway and assume the best in her, too.

Upon finishing his six months of class work, Mike moved on to an internship at MFS Investment Management. The role was challenging, and Mike struggled at times in the absence of the support structure of students and staff he’d built over the first six months of the program. We talked often, and I went to Copley Square to visit him every few weeks. Slowly but surely, Mike found his footing, and was ultimately successful in the demanding role.

The ideal is that when a Year Up student graduates, he or she is hired by his or her internship site. Despite a strong performance, Mike was not hired by MFS; there was no space. For a few weeks, Mike was pretty down, and struggled to find the motivation for a job search. However, other staff members and I convinced him to come in, re-write his resume and send it out in search of new positions. I met with him after work to show him how to keep track of job leads, and to coach him on sending thank you notes after a connection. He ultimately got a job at a local bank.

Around this time, Mike and I had a conversation that changed my life. When he graduated, and I stopped seeing him every day, we fell out of touch. After a few weeks of phone tag, Mike and I finally caught each other as I got out of the T. Mike told me he was frustrated with the job search, but was committed to keep looking. He then told me that a friend of his had recently tried to recruit him to make some quick and easy money. While Mike didn’t share the details, his hints made it clear he was talking about drugs.

Mike told me that night, as I sat on my then-girlfriend’s front steps, that he told his friend no. Mike told me he felt comfortable doing this, despite his tenuous career position and lack of money, because he knew he had me to look out for him. He recounted how he had told his friend, all you need is one guy who’s telling you the right things, who supports you, and who believes in you and your success. Mike thanked me for being that person for him, the person who worked hard to help him succeed in life.

Like I said, my day job in strategic planning was a pretty interesting and fulfilling gig. But when a young man tells you that your guidance was the critical piece keeping him away from danger and on the path to success, it’s about as powerful a form of validation and satisfaction as you can get.

My experiences with Mike and other students ultimately led me to apply to Teach For America in late 2010. Year Up had made me 99 percent sure my career would be in education – in ensuring positive life outcomes for students like Mike. My experiences actually working with students made me realize the next challenge I wanted was to actually be a classroom teacher, working with students every day to teach skills and knowledge necessary to achieving long-term success, while also mentoring and coaching students toward achieving their dreams. Mike, of course, thought I’d be a rock star.

If you’ve never been a first-year teacher, and never known one, it’s the quickest way to fall off the map. I enjoyed my first year, but unless you actually grabbed me and forced me to stop lesson planning for 30 seconds, you probably didn’t see me that year. Mike and I played phone tag for a while over that first year, with Mike doing most of the work, but we didn’t actually connect until the week after school ended in the summer of 2012.

Mike had left the bank job, saying it wasn’t all that he was looking for, and was looking for work. He was talking, as he had before, about becoming a full-time boxer. I reminded him of all of his talents – including those of the non-pugilist variety – and encouraged him to keep pursuing jobs that ensured a steady income, and a shot at stability. I told him he had to be patient, that he couldn’t just give up on finding the right gig. I apologized for not keeping in better touch, and he told me not to worry about it, that we were close enough we could pick right back up. We promised each other we’d stay in touch.

That was, as I discovered Monday, the last time I’d ever speak to Mike. The executive director of Year Up Boston sent me an e-mail to let me know that last Friday, Mike had died of a heart attack. He was 22.

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to the funeral. I felt guilty at not staying in touch. I didn’t know what I’d feel. I hadn’t been to a funeral of a non-family member before, and definitely not the funeral of a former mentee. Ultimately, my memory of our relationship, both what I’d done for him and what he’d meant to me, led me to go.

The last funeral I’d been to was when I was 18, for my grandfather, and I don’t remember much. I didn’t expect the funeral home, with its long parlor and rows of chairs, and Mike up there in front, with a long line waiting to say final goodbyes. I had a good five minutes to try to figure out what the hell I was going to say or do.

Finally, when I was next in line, it hit me. I’m Jewish, and in Judaism, we have a prayer called the Shehecheyanu. The prayer commemorates firsts. The exact text is, “Blessed art thou, Lord our G-d, ruler of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” My dad used to tell my brothers and me stories about how every time he went to a new state when he was a kid, he’d say the prayer, as thanks for getting to experience something new for the first time.

Kneeling before Mike, I recited the Shehecheyanu. I thanked him for being the first person to make me feel like mentoring and teaching was something I had a unique talent for. I thanked him for the validation he gave me by listening to and heeding my advice. I thanked him for helping me decide to become a teacher. I apologized for not staying in touch, and thanked him, because I knew he would have forgiven me. Lastly, I promised him I would keep supporting my students, teaching and coaching them, the same way I’d began doing that with him four years earlier.

I don’t need to go through all of the details of what followed. His cousins delivered eulogies, and cried. His mother cried. Everyone cried. We drove to the cemetery and listened to final words from a priest. I touched his casket on the way out, and one more time, thanked him for being my friend and an inspiration.

This last month has been hard. I’m tired all the time. It’s easy to lose patience with students who can’t sit down, or who can’t stop talking. It’s draining to sit in grad school courses several times each week, for hours on end. It’s a challenge to motivate myself to create the best lessons possible.

And then Friday happened, and I remembered how incredible it feels to care about people. I remembered how happy I am that I can teach students, be it the function of the respiratory system or what it means to be persistence. I remembered that I do my job because giving young people opportunities to better themselves and work toward their dreams, all while becoming good people, is some of the most important and incredible work one can be doing.

Mike was the first to show me all of that. While I do not know how long I’ll be a teacher, I will be spending my entire career in the service of young people who deserve opportunities, and who are fully capable of reaching their dreams if supported toward pursuing the right paths. I cannot thank Mike enough for empowering me to know that I will be successful in this mission, and I hope all of my students, past, present and future, know that I will always try to support them to reach their goals, just like I once supported Mike.

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