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Sometimes College Isn’t the Best Choice For My Students — And I Couldn’t Be More Proud

“Did you guys hear? Benny broke his leg!”

“Praised be, Benny broke his leg!”

“Whew. I’m sure glad to hear that.”

The news went through school like a whirlwind amongst the staff. Now, who would be happy that someone broke their leg? Teachers! You see, Benny was our former student, working a job at the construction site next door to our school. Every morning we would see him at his post with his stop and go sign directing the morning traffic as it entered into the block. We hadn’t seen him there for the past week or so and were afraid that he’d been laid-off, fired, or maybe even quit. We were honestly relieved that he’d injured himself playing basketball one weekend, which meant he still had his job. A week or so later he was back at work – walking cast and all.

As educators we are tasked with preparing students for college and career. We’ve had students attend academic institutions of higher learning such as NYU, Quinnipiac College, and Spellman College, but not everyone is on a direct or even indirect path to a four year college. Benny is a case in point. He wasn’t ready for college just yet – emotionally or financially. That’s a simple reality of life and no one should feel any shame about it. As educators we take equal pride in our young men and young women who either defer college, or simply aren’t college-bound. There is nothing wrong with getting a J-O-B. However, we do want him or her to acquire a skill of some sort. For Benny, he has the opportunity on the construction site to move up from his entry level job to a more skilled labor position such as a carpenter’s assistant. The young man he replaced on the job site – another former student – did exactly just that.

I’m always amazed when I run into former students who come up to me in the most unexpected places. I seize the opportunity to catch up on their lives. For example, I was at the 59th Street subway station one spring day and hear a young lady yelling my name. While I honestly couldn’t recall her at the moment, she brought me back. She was wearing hospital scrubs and was on her way to work. She’d finished the first two years of nursing school and was working as a Licensed Practical Nurse. Her plan was to continue with her education and become a Registered Nurse.

Another time, I was standing on line at a local fish joint and I see a familiar face. But as usual I don’t remember her name. As I leave the takeout restaurant she is still standing outside. I approach her,

“Excuse me Miss. What is your name?”

“Mr. Maaaason!!!” she explodes and comes over to hug me.

“I’m sorry I can’t remember your name?”

“It’s Amber.”

“How are you? What are you up to these days?”

“Not much?”

“Excuse me?” I immediately shift into teacher mode. This was an unacceptable response.

“Well, I work in a doctor’s office as a medical records assistant.”

“How is that not much?”

“Well I only went to school for a year of training.”

“Let me get this straight.” I rode my bike to get my dinner, so as I’m standing there holding my bicycle helmet, in shorts, wearing knee sleeves for my tender knees, I ask, “You continued your education, you have a job with responsibility, and you get up and go to work five days a week?”

“Yes,’ she replied a bit sheepishly.

“That is far from not much and don’t let anyone ever tell you that it isn’t!”

She smiles in recognition and appreciation of what I’m saying. We say goodbye and I hop on my bike to ride home. My fish was getting cold.

Another time on a bus ride home from LaGuardia Airport I ran into a former student who was wearing an airline uniform working as a ticket agent for one of the major airlines. His buddy, another former student, helped him get the job. But his friend left two weeks ago for Air Force boot camp.

For many of my students the military is a wonderful option. Far too many of our kids come from complicated homes. The military provides them with a path to a better life and many of my former students still need an ounce or two of discipline in their lives.

But what is more, the armed services offer the opportunity to learn a skill. The military is much more than simply combat. A service member can learn a trade such as airplane mechanics, dental hygiene, culinary arts, or stenography that can be transitioned into civilian life. Just last week a former student came into school to say hello and let me know that he was enlisting in the army. He’d attended college for a bit but money and life had gotten in the way. He was thinking about becoming a petroleum specialist. Indeed, the former accountant in me also says that twenty years of service means that you can retire in your late thirties or early forties and get a check for the rest of your life, and then pursue a second career.

I could go on and on about former students I’ve run into, and the jobs and careers they’ve begun. My teaching colleagues could well do the same. We’ve shared with our students the value of work, not merely the financial rewards but the rewards of accomplishment, independence and contribution that come from doing a job and doing that job well. Our girls and boys continue to make us proud.

But one special moment concerns Kermit. I wasn’t sure if Kermit was ever going to graduate. The Regents examinations presented a challenge for him. But Kermit was a hard worker, this we all knew. To our utter delight – and my surprise – he passed all of his Regents examinations by his senior year. His overjoyed guidance counselor and teachers helped him enroll in a trade program after high school. A couple of years later our school received a new set of computers. A technician from a Department of Education contractor was sent to install them for us. Guess who came to set up our new equipment? Kermit! You would have thought the teachers and staff had lost their damn minds when they saw Kermit come in to set us up! We couldn’t have been more proud.

Then again, there is one other very important aspect of work that I remind my students that they need to focus on, especially today,

“You guys need to eventually get a job and pay your Social Security tax!”

I don’t drive anymore, but I tell the girls and boys that when I retire I’m going to buy a car with their social security taxes and get a vanity license plate that says “PFBMS” – Paid For By My Students!

What do you think?

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