Within a couple of weeks, he was being sent to my office for disrespect and missing work. Sometimes I’d call in his mom, who was deeply committed to his success, but other times we’d sit in the school’s garden, which he loved, and talk life. I had my theories about hard work and inner discipline, Julian his about karma and laws of attraction, but we would hear each other out, set up some agreements, and he’d head back to class to try again.
Little by little, he settled in. Near the end of the school year, I was surprised when he showed up for the seniors’ graduation ceremony, and even more surprised when he came up to me afterward and revealed a Huck Finn plan he’d been scheming when he’d enrolled: He’d fully intended to play along with the school just to join the trip to Japan, where he was going bolt from the group, disappear into Tokyo and set out on his own.
“But I’m not going to do that,” he said. “I’m going to graduate.”
I believe he would have. That summer, he and three of his friends were killed in a car accident on Old Las Vegas Highway.
In the four years since, I’ve found no lesson to take from the way Julian died. But there may be something to learn from the way he lived, and especially from the way he approached school. Like so many other students, Julian reminds us that at the heart of any educational endeavor are people, not percentage points. The objects of our lesson plans and educational goal-setting are not “objects” at all, nor are they “future college students” or “future workers.” They are human beings who deserve the time and space to explore their interests, passions and dreams today—not in the uncertain future.
John Dewey wrote eloquently about how educators must negotiate between the child and the curriculum. The Academy for the Love of Learning’s Aaron Stern describes this negotiation as a dance, a give-and-take between what the pupil wants to learn and what the adult world wants to offer. When the dance goes well, as it did with Julian, we strike the sweet spot between child and curriculum, and attitudes shift, ideas change, minds open. But when we focus too much on the curriculum, the dance morphs into a forced march, a joyless trudge toward raised test scores that leaves student and teacher dropouts in its wake.
Think of it this way: If we measure schools solely by how well they deliver the standardized curriculum, which we are beginning to do, then Julian’s is a story of school failure. He’d missed most of 9th grade, and I am certain he did not test at grade level that March.
But if we measure schools by how well they reach children, Julian’s story is one of success—qualitative evidence that schools can transform a cynical kid into a young man determined to earn a high school diploma.
Driving along Old Las Vegas Highway the other day, I stopped by Julian’s descanso, a small wooden cross—his sunglasses at the base—marking the spot where he and his friends were killed. Amid the confusion and grief, I was able to take solace knowing that we, his teachers, had not lost our way. We had looked beyond our own plans and curriculum, and as all educators must, we had danced with the human being.