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Home > School Issues Channel > School Issues Archive > Teach for America Diaries > Shani Jackson's Diary > Entry #5

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Recognizing a Role Model
by Shani Jackson

Something about Estella stood out. When I first noticed her, she was sitting in the main office looking annoyed...preparing for a conversation with the principal. Every time I went to the office, she was there. Having seen her in the principal's office most of the day, I figured she must be trouble.

When Estella showed up at my classroom door with a class schedule in her outstretched hand (her legal papers to enter my class as a new student), I wanted to make sure she knew she wasn't going to disrupt my classroom. I wanted to tell her to tuck in her shirt, and give her a rundown of what I did and did not expect from her. But something stopped me. As my test-weary seventh-period students streamed into my classroom, I kept one eye on the kids in my class and the other on the kids in the hall while I tried to figure this girl out. I asked the question I've asked the 15 or so new students that have come to me over the course of the year: "So, where are you coming to us from?"

If the student is coming from one of the local high-performing charters, he or she is likely to be academically prepared, but at risk of becoming consumed by the less strict culture of our 1,000-plus middle school. If the student is coming from a neighboring middle school, I have to wonder if the student was wearing out his or her welcome at the old school, and is coming to our school to get a fresh start, lest he or she be sent to an alternative school. If the student is coming from another city, I have to determine the effect the migratory life has had on his or her education...and how I can make sure the student learns as much as possible for the short amount of time he or she is likely to remain with us.

But Estella's answer was a totally new one for me. "Nowhere," she said.

"Huh? What do you mean nowhere?"

"Well, I haven't been in school for awhile."

"You haven't been in school?!? How is that possible?"

"I have a lot of problems and I just haven't been in school."

The bell rang and I needed to start class. Students don't give you much grace when your class is what stands between them and the end of their day. But the mystery of Estella baffled me. How does that happen? A student just not in school. And then later in the same class period, Estella baffled me again. In spite of being out of school for this current academic year, she did better on my assignment than any other student in the class period. A kid who has not been in school for almost an entire year did better than any of my other students. But instead of it just being a negative reflection on me, I knew it was also a wonderful reflection on Estella.

When Estella left my class that day, I start to put the pieces of the day together -- Estella in the principal's office, Estella's untucked shirt, Estella's time out of school -- and realized what was in my subconscious that made me not ask Estella to tuck in her shirt. Contrary to my earlier thought, Estella wasnt trouble. Rather, Estella is what polite but impolite judgmental folks back in the day would have called in trouble. Estella is in seventh grade and pregnant.

The halls buzzed with teachers and students alike when they realized we had a student who is five-months pregnant. But the more I observed Estella, the more I needed to understand. In a middle school hall that often looked more like a bull stampede than a school, Estella was a calm deer observing the stampede. Estella was confident, composed, pretty, and brilliant.

"Ms. Jackson, can you give me some work so I can pull up my grade?" she asked.

"But Estella, you just got here. You don't really have bad grades."

"Yeah, but I want to go to eight grade next year and they said I'm going to need good grades and to pass the TAKS since I missed so much school."

"Well Estella, it doesn't strike me that TAKS would ever be a problem for you. Has it been?" She smiled and shook her head no. She continued, "I just know they don't really want me here. They want me to go to the school for pregnant girls. They told me that and I can just tell every time they look at me."

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that. I'm glad you're here." Of course, that's what I said. And it was true. But it concealed the battery of questions I had. How did this happen? Why don't you want to go to the school for pregnant girls? (of course, I have my ideas) How did you end up 13 and pregnant? And how can we make sure that a 13-year-old with the potential you have -- and a baby on the way -- graduates from college and actualizes her potential? I know I don't have the relationship with Estella yet for all this. But the more I got to watch Estella in action, the more I knew that she had to go to college.

On the Friday before spring break, the kids had a test about the properties of triangles and angles, and on area. My seventh period has a particularly chauvinistic student, Alan, who loves to talk about how much smarter boys are than girls, and how the boys always score better on the tests than the girls. His partner in crime, Alejandro, loves to be the student to prove Alan right, frequently garnering one of the top grades in the class. Imagine their surprise when Estella beat Alejandro, and every student in every class period. Estella earned a 97 on the test. Alejandro scored a 90. Alejandro was a bit out done.

"Fellas, watch out. Y'all need to step up your game!" I chided, trying to create healthy competition. The dismissal bell rang, and the kids raucously entered the halls, as most middle school students do on the Friday before spring break. As I looked back in my classroom, Estella sat calmly. As I saw her looking at her test, I knew what she wanted. "You want to know what you got wrong, huh?" She nodded her head and smiled. I explained the one problem she missed --finding the difference in the area of two circles. Estella quickly understood.

I had to tell her. "Estella, you know you're a role model. You are taking your education so seriously, and it is rare for girls here to take pride in being smart. You are a role model to a lot of the students here." And I meant it. Estella is five-months pregnant, and she is a role model.

Our job as educators isn't to limit our students to their current circumstance, but to elevate them to their future potential. Estella right now is 13 and pregnant. We do not know the string of circumstances and choices that led to this. In many ways, Estella is just another statistic. But who she is now isn't who she can be. Estella's potential is to be a role model, a wonderful mother, and whatever career she chooses.

I get to look into one year of my student's lives. I hope when I pass the baton on to the next teacher, they too see the potential of my students.

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Article by Shani Jackson
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Posted 03/21/2007