When We’re Not Enough

Untitled design (3)After writing this, it feels a bit odd to have not talked about any personal stories here. I can’t figure out a way to do that without violating FERPA or the trust of my students. If that weren’t enough reason, I still think my shortcomings in this area still might be too close to home to discuss here. Failure (perceived or real) is tough to tackle so publicly, so I’m speaking at a distance here.

I’m thankful for the book Jeff Hobbs wrote for many reasons, but one of them (super selfishly) is that it provides some context for me to talk through this struggle without breaking the law or the trust of others. Forgive me for speaking in generalities or for only referencing a learner I’ve never met. 

robert peaceIn his book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, tells an unforgettable, Jeff Hobbs tells the true story of his college roommate, Robert Peace. Aptly titled, Peace’s story ends both tragically and all too soon. Here’s the summary from the back of advance copies of Hobbs’ book:

Robert Peace was born outside Newark, in a neighborhood known as “Illtown,” to an unwed mother who worked long hours in a kitchen. Peace’s intellectual brilliance and hard-won determination earned him a full scholarship to Yale University. At college, while majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, he straddled the world of academia and the world of the street, never revealing his full self in either place. Upon graduation from Yale, he went home to teach at the Catholic high school he’d attended, slid into the drug trade, and was brutally murdered at age thirty.

For the longest time, I wrestled with that. How could his story end this way? Everything was in place, right? Robert Peace had what it we think it takes–determination, intelligence, no road blocks for a future, positive peer community at Yale, an so much more–but it wasn’t enough to keep his story from ending tragically. So many have overcome with so much less in their favor; how did he end like this?

That’s what I can’t shake.

That’s what I can’t understand.

That’s what leaves me frustrated.

Because when we put everything in place, it feels like the plan has to work. It should be enough. It should work. He should go on to do something, anything, that’s better than living a short and tragic life, right?

How do we respond when everything we offer isn’t enough or isn’t accepted?

For a while, it was really convenient for me to believe that everything we do–providing choices, developing meaningful relationships, and helping bridge gaps (socioeconomic, class based, race based, gender based, and more) just to name a few of the myriad of great efforts educators undertake in the service of students–was so compelling that students couldn’t resist it.

Many times, in practice, it would only take one extending one of these olive branches to create some change, and in tough situations, the right one-two combination always seemed to make the magic happen. You just had to get to know the student, prove you were in for the long haul, and meet the needs that were there (and the process seemed to work even smoother if you helped determine those through your own relationship with a student).

Please don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to sound flippant about this at all. Serving students this way was what I love doing. I would go as far as to say I felt called to do this, designed to do this even. And I felt like in many cases, I even did this well.

But then there’s Robert Peace’s story. And everything isn’t perfect for him in his situation, but his story sure starts out looking like a movie script for the student who is going to overcome the odds. In fact, when you look at it, it really looks more like the script we would laugh at and say, “Things don’t come together that well, right? A full ride to college almost literally handed to you on a silver platter? Come on!”

But that’s his story. And the story still ends the same.

Moving forward

After finishing the book, I honestly felt a little hopeless and started questioning myself.

Had I done the right things for my students?

Did I do enough? What else could I have offered?

Did I forget something that could have made the difference?

Did I miss the mark because I didn’t know them well enough or provide enough feedback or attention in class?

Did my attention with some cost me precious time with the others?

For the longest time, I just didn’t answer the questions. I just left them out there. But earlier this week, I heard a presenter (Adam Saenz – Twitter link) say something along the lines of: Educators should feel okay to be worn out by their job. They should be okay with recognizing that at times, we have to pull back to recharge. And they should know that their work is tough and they don’t have to be superman and act like it’s not weighing on them. (If any of that sounds off, I’m sure the mistakes are mine.)

What he said brought me back to my questions, but with different eyes.

As an educator, your work is absolutely going to push you to your limits. Own that. You have limits–and the only way you’ve found them is by giving every last bit you had to offer to serve others. You can’t just keep giving without recharging yourself. Give yourself the space to admit exhaustion, invest in that which enriches you and fills you up, and continue your service when your cup is full.

Here’s what I wish I had done differently:

  1. I equated measurable, meaningful change with a particular response from students. I wish I had set a goal of relentlessly pursuing and pushing my students toward success. That’s what I could control–my end. I focused on a specific student reaction, not on my role.
  2. I reflected on where I could have done better, but I had no process for helping students work through the same conversation. As it turns out, I just beat myself up about “not being enough.” It wasn’t especially helpful for me, and it certainly didn’t do anything to help encourage students. They didn’t even know. I wish I had helped facilitate a conversation about getting better together.

I’d love it if I were the only person to go through this, but I suspect I’m not alone in wishing I could make more change happen than I was able to see through. I hope your work with students is fruitful, and I hope that in more cases than not, you get to see the fruits of your labor.

3 Replies to “When We’re Not Enough”

  1. Thank you for sharing the book and your comments, Aaron. Throughout my career in education, I have mostly seen positive “fruits of my labor,” but there have been some students for whom I tried to make difference and never could reach them.

    I love your suggestion #2, and it was an aha moment for me when I read, “It wasn’t especially helpful for me, and it certainly didn’t do anything to help encourage students. They didn’t even know.” For some of the ones I haven’t reached yet, I’m not sure if they would be receptive, willing, and open to a conversation about getting better together, but I’m going to try.

    Thank you for this,

  2. Oh, the depth of emotion that wells up within me as I read and relate to your words! I seem to have vivid recall of the times when I wasn’t “Enough,” when I can’t connect, can’t make a difference, try and fail, try and fail. Like you (and teachers everywhere), I grieve on a personal level when one of “my” students falls into this category. Hardest? Attending a student’s funeral based on a bad decision–and I have attended more than a handful.

    Thank you for the reflective “should have”. Number 1 is true but hard. But true. (yes, I repeated that intentionally).

    Number 2 is resonating with me. How can I add reflection to my students’ world?

    Thank you. I am thinking.

  3. Bob Hannett says:

    Your journey like that of so many educators comes to the same conclusions . What we do not see what we do not know about our interactions with students is often the most powerful reward for our efforts. It is the tales they tell their children about school life that gives a true reflection of the impact we may have had. In for the long haul, education for life.

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