Finding the Key
Fifteen years of my career as a teacher were spent at a little prairie high school of about 300 students. In a school that small, I taught most students all four years of high school, so I had the opportunity to truly appreciate them and their families, and to really make a difference with their learning in the long-term. With a graduating class of about 40, involved kids could be lots of things at the same time: yearbook editor-volleyball captain-prom queen or quarterback-photographer-FBLA president. Uninvolved kids, however, often searched for something with which to fill their time, which in many cases included drugs and alcohol, since there wasn’t much else to do; at least that’s what they told me.
Cody was the typical prairie high school kid: bored and broke but smart and savvy—a frustrating combination for a teacher to face. On his first day of class, Cody listlessly shuffled in, his ennui a blatant counterpoint to my eager new-school-year excitement. I didn’t know what to do with him. I spent most of his sophomore year trying to draw him out of his shell and discover his interests. Harry Wong, master teacher and author of The First Days of School (a must-read for any beginning teacher) says that kids won’t retain anything they are taught unless the teacher connects with them in some way. Finding the key to unlock Cody soon became one of my missions.
I knew I was making progress when Cody came to me after the Drug Awareness assembly (which I sponsored) in the fall of his junior year. He asked to talk to me privately and confessed that he was addicted to marijuana and alcohol and wanted to stop, but didn’t know how. He wanted to know if my drug-prevention group would accept addicted students. Before then, my group, STARS, or Students Taking a Right Stand, had been focused solely on drug prevention, but right then I decided that not only would the group prevent students from trying drugs, it would also help students manage their own recovery. I accepted him immediately and set the wheels in motion to expand the group’s responsibilities. Cody swore off pot and drinking, and never touched them again for the rest of high school. His decision had a lasting effect not only on his grades and attendance, but also on his improved attitude and self-confidence. I have yet to see a kid so focused on turning things around in his life.
The following spring, I taught this great lesson during our study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I set up a mock trial system so students could “sue” each other. Cody set a precedent with this assignment: he sued himself. Joseph (his first name, the “reformed” persona), sued Cody (his middle name, the “lazy shiftless” persona) for slacking off and damaging his GPA. He brought in several examples of before-and-after schoolwork and even posed for pictures as Joseph and as Cody.“Joseph” Churan, the prosecution, and “Cody” Churan, the defense, in the mock trial case of Churan vs. Churan.
He played both parts in the trial, changing costumes with each round of questioning, and Joseph won the case. It set a precedent because every year after that, at least one student sued him- or herself for some regrettable thing he/she had done in the past. The takeaway: students began to learn from their mistakes, and not to be so critical of themselves. I couldn’t have planned a better lesson.
At the start of his senior year, still riding the crest of his sobriety, Cody came to me with some concerns about being “stuck in the sticks,” as the kids called it. He was afraid he’d be limited to living on the prairie for the rest of his life, working a dead-end job and never leaving or experiencing anything of value. His concerns were legitimate: he had lots of models around him of people who were, quite honestly, stuck. In addition, he had spent the first years of high school destroying his GPA, so it was almost too little, too late; even so, I suggested that he consider joining the military. After speaking to some recruiters, he finally decided to join the Navy. Of all the armed forces, kids from my school seemed to choose the Navy often; I think it’s because Colorado is landlocked, and the thought of seeing and living near the ocean is very appealing.
In preparation to enter the Navy, Cody took the ASVAB exam four times. The first was on a whim, and the second and third times his score was still way too low. After graduation, Cody focused all his energy on a higher score. He made study dates with me, and we spent three to four hours every morning for six weeks improving his vocabulary and sentence structure. I made him flash cards and timed how quickly he could match words to their definitions. He went to a math tutor in the evenings. When he took the test again that July, he had doubled his score! His once-dormant sense of internal drive had rewarded him with the opportunity to not only join the Navy but to begin at a higher level and have some choices in job assignments. I was so proud of him! This was not the same kid who drifted into my classroom two years previously. In his senior year, Cody played trombone in the band, had the lead in the fall play, and was homecoming king as well as president of STARS. Nope, not the same kid at all.
Being in the Navy has quite literally opened up the world to Cody. He has lived in Greece and travelled to Thailand, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Scotland and England. He even saw a play at the Globe Theater, an item still on my bucket list. He will soon be travelling to Bahrain, and then hopefully to Spain. He once thought he’d never leave the prairie, and now he’s seen more of the world than most people have.
Cody lives in San Diego with his new wife Stephanie, and it’s too far for me to visit, but when he visits me he always has a cup of his mom’s homemade tea (I save some that she made for me, especially for his visits). We keep in touch through Facebook and texting, and I still tell him often that I’m proud of him. He has grown into a wonderful model of a man who treats people with kindness and compassion. The best part is that he’s passing his lessons down as he mentors a child from his church and volunteers at children’s events all over San Diego. I found the key to unlocking him, and he has returned the favor tenfold. What more could a teacher ask?