The educational system is a hierarchy, and sometimes you may feel that you’re just a powerless cog in a giant machine. You want to do what’s right and have a lasting impact, but there are outside forces at work — school counselors, coaches, principals, superintendents and state standards are only the tip of the iceberg.
I learned an important lesson from you.
I learned that I have to be responsible for my own actions.
When you do take a stand, you don’t always know how it all turned out. Did your action make a difference? Did you have a positive impact on the trajectory of a student’s life?
That’s why we created Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers — to give teachers reassurance that their actions make a difference. One of the stories in the book that had a big impact on me imparts a lesson that transcends the classroom. Titled “Consequences,” it’s by Linda Carol Cobb, who taught English electives at the same high school in Virginia Beach for 37 years.
Linda tells us that when she was a young teacher she made a difficult decision and it got her in trouble. She had a student in her public-speaking class named Kelly who was a gifted athlete. Kelly wasn’t a behavior problem but he also didn’t put much effort into her class. He did enough to get by and passed first semester, but second semester was a different story. It was Kelly’s senior year, and you know how second-semester seniors can be!
Kelly didn’t do any classwork and he didn’t show up for the final exam. Even though Linda tried to give him a break, his average was below 50. He had no chance of passing, and he needed the credit from her class to graduate.
This young man had won a state championship in track and was one of the school’s all-time stars — much appreciated by teachers and his fellow students. A large photograph of him in his uniform was prominently displayed in the gym foyer. And he had earned a scholarship to college, for track. Now that was in jeopardy, all because of Linda’s decision to treat him like any other student.
Kelly’s track coach asked Linda to change his grade. Then the head school counselor asked. Then an assistant principal tried to pressure her to pass Kelly. She said they played all the typical cards: pity, guilt, race.
But she couldn’t do it. His average wasn’t even close to passing. Why should she treat him differently than other students just because he was a great athlete?
Linda had all these men ganging up on her. But she knew she was doing the right thing. It wasn’t like Kelly had worked his heart out; he hadn’t made the effort and these were the consequences. He had the ability to pass the class, but he had been irresponsible.
Linda says, “The whole stressful ordeal had been tensed and disheartening. I resented being questioned about a student’s grade. Didn’t we have standards? Weren’t we supposed to prepare students for the real world — not give them a pass? How could this successful coach and these administrators want me to do something unethical? I lost respect for them for asking me.”
Kelly ended up having to go to summer school to earn the credit he needed to graduate. He was furious with her.
Now a few years had passed, and one day near the end of the school year Linda looked out the door, and who did she see but Kelly. Uh oh.
Kelly came into her classroom and Linda forced a smile and said, “Hi, Kelly. What are you doin’ here?”
“I came to find you,” he said.
“Oh?” she said, worrying about what was going to happen. Was he still angry?
Kelly stepped further into the room. “I’ve needed to do something for a long time.”
Now Linda was really nervous. Another teacher had actually been threatened by a senior she had failed. She had needed to call the police after he confronted her in the teachers’ parking lot with his dog.
Kelly walked right up to her. And here’s what he said: “You know, in my whole life, you were the first obstacle I ever encountered. Because of sports, I kind of slid by. I got away with things. Even with my mother. But not you. No one ever held me responsible for my actions. I blamed you for failing me and keeping me from graduating on time.”
Then Kelly shook his head. “I learned an important lesson from you. I learned that I have to be responsible for my own actions.”
He paused and then grinned broadly. “I needed to come back to thank you.”
Now, Linda was breathing normally again. This was not what she had expected.
Kelly continued. “You didn’t fail me. I failed,” he said, putting his hand to his chest. “You did the right thing.”
Linda started to cry. All the stress she had gone through, the flak she had taken for doing what she knew was right —it had all been worth it. Kelly sat on the desk next to her, and said, “I wanted you to know that I did go on to college. I competed in track there, too.”
Linda thanked him for coming and they talked for a few more minutes. And then, as he was leaving, he turned and said, “I know you don’t think I learned anything about public speaking, but I really did.”
“Well, the short speech you just gave was wonderful,” Linda said.
Kelly smiled and nodded before walking out the door.
Linda concludes her story by saying, “I was proud of Kelly. I was proud of myself, too.”
The 19th century British philosopher James Allen said it best:
“A man sooner or later discovers that he is the master-gardener of his soul, the director of his life.”
Linda helped Kelly become a man who was “the director of his life,” and he was a better adult as a result. It was a lesson she would never forget — about the value of taking a stand to do the right thing for her students, because it does make a difference.