“We never know which lives we influence, or how, or why.”-Stephen King, 11/22/63 How do you get good at TEACHING? How do you get good at Teaching and STAY good at it?
For those of us who work in Education, we go to so many conferences & workshops about the ‘how’ of education, the ‘where’, the ‘when’, the ‘what’. But only a few are curious about the ‘WHY’ of education. Whenever we engage in a significant task, if we enter it with a right ‘Why’- the ‘what’, the ‘when’, the ‘where’, the ‘how’ usually falls into place. When we enter education with the right ‘why’, we posture ourselves and poise ourselves to make the kind of life-impacting relationships that have the power to change the ‘Future’. In this article and through this article, we will not tell you how to make an impact in your student’s life, but we will share with you a true story and let you make an Impact yourself, your way!
Let’s begin with the tale:
This is a 6th-grade boy’s picture, named Lou.
He’s a Hispanic male, he has Low Socioeconomic Skills (S.E.S), he has Single & Uninvolved parents, he has a history of Truancy, history of Interaction with the Legal System. He’s got Undiagnosed Depression and is using a street drug to self-medicate.
Now, if you’re a classroom teacher and you have this kid in your classroom, this is the kid that will make you sit out in the park and loiter your campus and have an existence of a crisis.
This is the kid that will make you sit out at midnight in February and say, ‘Do I really want to walk 200 blocks into that building, because I did not sleep well last night, but to guarantee that Lou slept like a baby.’
And then you start thinking, “They don’t pay me enough for this! Why am I doing this?”.
“ - If you have this kid in your classroom, he will worry you out!
- If you have this kid in your classroom & it doesn’t worry you out. [One of the two things are true of you….. Either you’re a Superhero, or you’re in just a little bit of Denial]. “
The setting is the early 1980s; location- Lower Rear Ground Valley of the very Southern tip, very close to the border of Mexico, 95% Hispanic.
Lou, along with one of his four-year-older to him friend were caught red-handed with four ounces of Marijuana. It was his first time to be arrested, his first time to be hauled to jail in the back seat of a police car & his first time to be fingerprinted.
Lou’s mother arrived. An enormous amount of anger on her face, because it was her first time to come to Juvenile to pick him up. The first words out of her mouth when she saw him were, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”!!!!!
- It wasn’t a question of action,”What am I doing here? Well, I’m just sitting here with these handcuffs digging into my wrists, wondering what the next forty-eight hours of my life are going to look like.”
But a question of Identity!
His identity?- He knew who he was. He was Adam Loius Saenz. He had a miserable family life. He had no father. He had a mother who was physically present but engaged emotionally only when she wanted to express anger, frustration, and bitterness. He hated school. More precisely, he hated the teachers at his school. The only escape from these feelings of sadness, anger, and fear were the thirty-minute reprieves he got on the back end of the fattest joint he could possibly roll. The only intimacy and community he experienced were with the comparably trouble-ridden peers who hit that joint with him for exactly same reasons he did. The only sense of empathy he knew-- the only way he knew someone else knew how he felt-- was through his headphones, through music.
All this and the first words out of his mother’s mouth were, “what are you doing here?”. Isn’t the more appropriate question, given who he was, “where else would he be?”.
Child Protective Services was never involved with his family, but his mother could read the writing on the wall. As a sixth-grader, he was already becoming the wrong crowd; He had an older brother who was at-risk for dropping out of high school. At the end of that school year, his mother started searching for options.
Phone calls were made (“it doesn’t look good for him…would you consider?....you could send him back down on holidays.”) Then, legal documents were signed (“hereby award temporary conservatorship…assess his subsequent adjustment…reassess if problems arise.”).
And just like that, he was living with family friends in Katy, Texas.
His principal at Katy Junior High—Mr. Roosevelt Alexander—knew about his past when he arrived in Katy (his guardian had given him a brief history of how he landed in Katy).
Mr. Alexander maybe knew that a kid like him probably had repeated negative interaction with authority figures, and as a result, probably had issues with people in positions like his.
On the second day of school, Lou saw Mr. Alexander standing on the steps by the school’s front door, and Lou avoided eye contact as he approached, not wanting to have anything to do with him. He looked up, and Mr. Alexander was suddenly standing directly in front of him.
“What do you want with me?” he thought. “I haven’t been here long enough to offend anyone, and my eyes haven’t been bloodshot in over four months.”
“Welcome to Katy, son,” he said, extending out his right hand. “My name is Mr. Alexander. I am your principal. I’m glad you’re here.”
He smiled, and then he patted Louis on the back, and then he walked away.
All this, seemingly out of nowhere. Lou was dumbfounded. Was this a plot? Was he setting him up?
No. For the first time in his life, as he interacted with Mr. Alexander over the course of that year, he came to know what loved-based leadership really looked like.
By the time he left Katy Junior High and transitioned to Katy High School, he was a much more focused student. His grades had improved, and he had qualified for the Junior Olympic national cross-country meet. But much more importantly, he was a more settled human being. He was no longer operating primarily out of fear and anger as base emotions. he was more willing and able surrendering his need to control and allow the adults on campus to lead him. He was learning to give and receive love. He was learning to give and receive trust. As he transitioned to Katy High School, the growth and healing continued.
He completed his high school and his foster parents refused to keep him any longer. They took all the structure away from him and he landed up in San Antonio, working as a dishwasher. He met a guy who let him sleep on the floor of his living room in a tiny one bedroom apartment.
His depression was out of control. He was again using street drugs to self-medicate.
He wasn’t suicidal, but kept asking himself and wondering, “Are you kidding me? I’m 19 years old, I’m working as a dishwasher, I’m using drugs & I’ve got another 60 years of ‘this’ to look forward to? What’s the point?”
One morning, while coming back from work at around 3 am. He was really depressed, really overwhelmed. He pulled out his journals. He needed to get into a journal to write. In his journal box, he found something. He found two letters, that had been written to him by two of his teachers, his senior year Katy High School.
Letter 1- written by his English Teacher:-
Letter 2- written by his Creative Writing Teacher
Those words haunted Lou. Because he knew what he was… He was Louis Saenz. He was a 90-year-old version of that 6th-grade kid, who’s never going to make a single day through. Whose job it is to make your life hell. Whose never going to learn. He’s using drugs. He’s depressed out of his mind. He’s a dishwasher. He has no future. He knew exactly who he was.
They wrote these words to him because they absolutely believed in him.
He put this theory to test-- He signed up for a college course! Neither of his parents went to college.
He went to the University of Texas, San Antonio. Took up his first course- ‘The Introduction to English’. - he couldn’t believe he passed the semester.
Change in the thought process-
First thought- “Maybe Mrs. McRoberts and Mrs. Exley were right about me. Maybe they could see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.”
Second thought-“Maybe this is just a clerical error. I should probably take another course.”
He took another course in spring, then winter, then summer - cleared them all. Just before he turned 27, he graduated his undergraduate degree in English.
Thought process now- “They were right about me. They could see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.”
“I’m done being Lou. I'm done being that kid who’s never gonna make it through a single day, whose job it is to make your life hell, who’s never going to learn.”
And just psychologically, as a way to give himself permission to be someone else, he started going out with his first name.
He is now ADAM SAENZ. Because maybe Adam can live this life with which those ‘TEACHERS’ saw in him so many years ago. The kid is not in 6th grade anymore. He is a licensed Psychologist today. He started his master’s program, he started with his own therapy - to work through his own past, his own trauma, his own abuse. Finished his masters & earned his Ph.D. in School Psychology from Texas A&M University.
He is now Dr. Adam Saenz.
Insight of the full circle- It was the time to understand-- Now, he could write his own ticket, he’s qualified and he could do what he’d love to do, which is practice psychology at any hospital, any school, any university. And he’s bilingual.
He wouldn’t have those if he didn’t have a Ph.D.
He wouldn’t ever have the courage to apply for Ph.D. if he hadn’t finished his master's degree.
He could never have applied for masters degree if he hadn’t finished his undergraduate degree.
He would never have stepped out for that first degree, had ‘EDUCATORS’ not spoken truth into his life about who he was and what was his identity.
When educators make that connection with those students in the classroom, they have the power to change every heartbeat. Dr. Adam Saenz’s life is a proof that what educators do matters, proof that the educator’s investment in today’s students can quite literally change the future.