27: Antony’s Gift

27: Antony’s Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

Antony’s Gift

Follow your passion, and success will follow you.

~Terri Guillemets

The bus rumbles down the street, jolting as it stops and starts. The first rule of riding public transportation in Baltimore is not to make eye contact, but I feel safer when I know my surroundings so I glance up and around quickly. I think I see a familiar face, but that’s not possible since I very rarely ride this bus. I turn my gaze to the book I brought to shield me from the world.

Finally, the bus arrives at my stop, down the street from the bookstore where I work my second job. I am a temp at an insurance company during the day and then travel to this book and music shop to work nights in the music department, an ironic occupation since I am basically musically illiterate. But this job is only for the Christmas holidays, to get enough money to buy gifts for the family. I can handle it if I set my mind to it.

I step off the bus and go only three steps before I hear someone calling me, “Ms. Arvidson! Ms. Arvidson!” I haven’t been addressed by my maiden name since June, and at first I don’t even acknowledge it. “Ms. Arvidson, is that you?” The voice is more insistent now. I can’t ignore it, so I turn and see a young man. As his name comes back to me, I am flooded with memories.

• • •

Antony was one of my students during my one and only year as a special education teacher working with juniors and seniors at an inner-city high school in Baltimore. I had spent two years in graduate school earning my teaching credentials, but I was miserable right from the start and the year was an emotional blur. On the fifth day, there was a shooting in the cafeteria. In October there was a lock-down that we all thought was due to the O.J. Simpson verdict being read, but was actually due to “gangbangers” roaming the hallways. I sat huddled alone in my classroom for lunch, listening to the sound of heavy running in the halls above me and the voice of a TV commentator in front of me.

The roll books showed twenty to twenty-five students enrolled in each of my class periods. My actual classes consisted of five regular attendees and three or four who came and went. Drug deals occurred in my classroom, but there was no support from the administration or the single police officer assigned to the school. I tried to teach my students the curriculum, but was told by the “powers that be” that I should concentrate on life skills such as filling out job applications because “none of these kids are college-bound and they just need to get jobs to pay bills.” The unfortunate truth was that my students were not going to get traditional diplomas, but only certificates of attendance for their four years of high school.

For special education teachers, the goal was to get the students released from their Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, before graduation so they could get a “real” diploma. I found that my students had never been told or educated about their disabilities. I sat down with my regulars, told them what their disability was, and assigned a research project where they learned about their individual disability and discovered ways to cope with it. Many of my students learned about famous people who overcame disabilities and went on to be successful adults.

Although most of the students completed the assignment, few believed that they could overcome their disability. Most believed that they would never escape their environment. One young man actually quoted news stories and explained, “I don’t know why you think we should go to college, I’m gonna be dead by the time I’m twenty-five anyway.” I didn’t know what to say.

But Antony was different. He worked incredibly hard and did an amazing research project. He presented it as a speech and his voice was reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His audience was held captive by the resonance and intonations he used naturally. This child who had been labeled as learning disabled had a wonderful gift. I did my best to help him recognize this, and by the end of the year he was released from his IEP. He was the only one of my students to receive a regular diploma that year. I was proud of him, but my heart was defeated. What about the others? I resigned at the end of year.

• • •

“Hi, Antony. How have you been?”

“Ms. Arvidson. I’m so glad I ran into you.”

“What are you up to? Buying Christmas presents?”

“Yeah. I have a job and I’ve been saving up for a while. What are you doing here?”

What am I supposed to tell him? I quit teaching? I’m an emotional wreck? I feel like I didn’t get through to my students? I need to re-evaluate where my career is headed? That’s why I’m temping during the day and working at a job I hate at night? I’m a failure?

“I’m working a night job to get a little extra money, too,” I say, finally.

“That’s cool.” He pauses, suddenly nervous. “Hey, I wanted to tell you something.” A hint of excitement is in his voice.

“Okay,” I say, cautiously curious.

“Well, first, I want to say thank you.”

“For what?”

“For helping me graduate. For making me believe I could graduate.”

My heart skips a beat. “You did that on your own,” I say quickly. “You worked hard. You have a gift and you used it.”

“But I didn’t believe I could until you were my teacher. You’re the one who made me see that I could do anything I wanted. That was you, not me.” He shrugs and looks away.

“You chose to believe that. I couldn’t get through to the others. I couldn’t do what I was supposed to do....” My eyes begin to fill.

“I’m in college,” he blurts out and gauges my reaction. I can’t speak so he continues, rambling. “It’s community college, but I’m studying music and speech. My favorite class is English because it reminds me of you and what you made me believe in.” I say nothing. If I speak, my voice will break. He goes on, a bit uncertain. “Anyway, I wanted you to know that and I wanted to thank you. So, thanks.”

“You’re welcome, Antony. I’m so proud of you.” These words are whispered. I turn away quickly and enter the music store. I rush to the restroom, unable to hold back the flood of tears. I shake; I sob; I laugh out loud. My mind is spinning like I’m on a carousel. After several minutes, I manage to pull myself together enough to get through my shift.

As soon as I get home that night, I frantically dig out my teaching portfolio. I turn to the philosophy of education statement I had naïvely written in grad school. When I get to the last line, my vision blurs, as I read: “If I can help change the life of one student then I have done my job.”

I wasn’t a failure after all. I’ve been a teacher ever since.

~Jenny Scarborough

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