A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out a closet in my house when I stumbled upon a folder full of letters my students had written during my first year of teaching. At the time, I taught ninth-grade English at the lowest-performing high school in Nashville, and since it was my first year of teaching, I was struggling.
At the end of the year, I had asked my students to write letters to their future selves to be read as seniors in high school. What would they say? Where would they be headed? What would their plans be? Who would they be and how would they have changed? I instructed them to put the letters in an envelope and address them to themselves.
The folder I opened in my house was full of these letters—most of which had not been put in self-addressed envelopes!—and I suddenly remembered these students—and many of their hopes and dreams, so vividly.
I knew that so many of my kids had high hopes for where they’d be as seniors in 2016. But as I read through letter after letter after letter, I couldn’t help but be struck by a deep sadness. So many of these students were not where they’d hoped they’d be six years later and so many of them were not where I’d hoped they’d be either.
I keep track of many of these kids (okay, now 20- and 21-year-olds) on Facebook, or through word of mouth by students who still call me occasionally. So many of them are not in college like they said they’d be. They weren’t doing what they’d hoped they would be. They hadn’t graduated with honors or made it past their first year of college.
But, some of them had. I found Mikayla on Facebook and took a picture of her letter and sent it to her since there was no address. She responded almost immediately, full of joy, and told me she was up late working on a research paper at the University of Memphis, where she is a junior and a teaching assistant. I sent Dakota his letter too; he’s in the Marines.
It’s frustrating that many of them were not where they’d seen their future selves, but I had to remember that still, some of them were.
A Different School, a Different Story
In my third year of teaching, I had moved to a different school and was teaching eighth-grade writing, and I was finally getting the hang of it. I pushed 98 percent of my students to score proficient or advanced on their state writing assessment and the entire grade spent the last weeks of the quarter visiting colleges in Nashville and Washington, D.C.
Today, that group of now 12th-graders sat at Belmont University and announced the college they plan to attend. They participated in College Signing Day—a significant way for graduating seniors to share their college commitment publicly.
This is a big deal for a lot of reasons, most notably because many of these students will be the first in their family to attend college. But, it’s not only that: 100 percent of these students were accepted into four-year colleges.
Every. Single. One. Of. Them.
I know that it’s not simply because they had Ms. Riggs as an eighth-grade English teacher. Or Ms. Duchon as an eighth-grade reading teacher. Or Mr. Pettaway and Mr Crider and Mr. Holdren and later on Ms. Staples and Ms. Thompson and Ms. McEwen and Ms. Smith. It is, quite literally, the result of a collective impact of years and years of strong, dedicated teachers and even stronger and more dedicated students.
Today, every single one of their eighth-grade teachers returned to watch them on College Signing Day and commit to their college. Teachers came from across the city; others drove and flew in from across the country to see this incredible group of kids take the next step forward to exactly where they want to be. Several of the students in this class have earned full scholarships to historically Black colleges and universities like Fisk, and others have landed spots at their dream schools.
And it’s this class of students that makes me realize how truly life-changing a school with incredible teachers and a strong culture can be. I didn’t have this group of students write letters to their future selves, but if I had, I know that every single one of them would be opening them this week knowing that they have ended up exactly where their 14-year-old selves had hoped they’d be.
Visit BecauseTheyCan.com to find out how to close the Belief Gap.