Written by Ms. Berman
Dedicated to the Class of 2012
I am swimming up steam against a formidable current. I can hear my support team cheering from the distance, providing me with sustenance, but for right now I am alone with my mind. Life is so grand, and that is not something I can tell anyone else… it has to be felt. And this current of which I speak is growing at an exponential rate, as more and more data is being cast upon Gen Y-Not?, most of which is skewed to appear incredibly dismal. “Ms. Berman, I am worried because I haven’t studied enough for the SAT and the ACT,” L. said to me yesterday. “Not all students have to take a prep course,” I replied, “just sit down with a review book and take a couple of practice tests and see how you do. You are busy on the weekends pursuing the arts… Do you really want to attend a college that wouldn’t accept you because you made this a priority?” Over and over again, I am having these conversations, trying to convince students that how they spend their time should be driven by their passion… but the societal supposition is prevailing, and I often feel as if I am the sole dissenter.
My assertion is not a qualitative assumption, but is based upon the understanding that life is not just about getting into college, but the experience therein and thereafter. This realization manifested at a cost, and remains a poignant and painful memory associated with my early teaching years…
Alex (not his real name) came from a family of 3 children, all of whom were fathered by different men who then abandoned their children. His mother did sewing/mending to support the family. Alex desperately wanted to attend the UC Santa Barbara Summer Pre-College Program, and thus I rallied the staff together to raise the money so he could live in the college dorms and attend classes for six weeks. His older brother had just joined an East LA gang and Alex needed an escape. Fast. Alex excelled in all of his coursework at UCSB. More important, he met other college-bound students from all over the country who filled his head with new ideas about the possibilities of the future. Upon his return, Alex decided his “reach” school would be Harvard University. For the sake of brevity, suffice it to say that Alex landed a full ride to Harvard, graduated four years later with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and then moved to Oakland to pursue his graduate studies at UC Berkeley. Looking back on this period in my life, as a new teacher in my twenties, I made a cardinal error. As I communicated with Alex during his college years, I would ask him about his coursework, his family, his health and goals, but I failed to ask a pivotal question: “Are you happy?”
After Alex began his studies at Berkeley, we lost touch. Years later, when I heard his story from his former high school guidance counselor, I realized, regardless of our intentions, we had all misguided Alex in our collective quest for his success… In the midst of his graduate research in Engineering at UC Berkeley, after he was married to the love of his life, Alex had an emotional breakdown. You see, Alex never wanted to be an engineer. He had taken a class at UCSB because I had suggested he try it out, and he had been successful in the course. He then continued in that field because he knew it would provide him an income that would enable him to later care for his family, would make the high school teaching staff proud after all we had done for him, and he would finally achieve his ultimate dream of success. But there was a kink in his plan. It was never his dream.
Alex wanted to be an artist. Four years at Harvard. Two years at Berkeley. A wife who adored him. Six months in bed. Alex learned to look within himself to find his passion.
Today I know that whether a student is aiming for Santa Barbara City College or Stanford University, there is only one essential question educators should be asking: “What is your passion?” I was young and naïve when I was mentoring Alex, caught up in the hype of doing what everyone had told me was “the thing to do” in education. Push kids to reach their potential. Get them into college. Tell them to make their parents and teachers proud. Period. But an adolescent is much more complex than this. It is not my role to push, get, nor tell, but rather to provide support. It is obvious to anyone who truly knows me that I live my life with passion, and that is precisely why I view it as grand. Students should be afforded the same opportunity. And thus, no matter how formidable this current grows, I will just have to be a stronger swimmer… for all of my students, but today I am swimming in honor of Alex.
Alex is currently living in San Francisco, working in the field of graphic design.