I had a lovely encounter today at Smart and Final. While wandering the aisles with my mega cart, a young man with a store nametag approached me to ask if I was a teacher. It was 17 year old Oscar, a student I had 7 years ago in my special ed. class. At the time Oscar did poorly with reading and writing, having severe language disabilities, and living in a non-English speaking family. He was rather incorrigible, getting into trouble with other children and authority figures at the school. Because of his language disability, he had been yanked from his community in Pomona and bused to the special needs classes in Claremont for his entire childhood.
Oscar was not only a child with disabilities though, he was a funny little boy that loved to play and had a smile that could only warm my heart. He also loved working outside. Not only did it bring him pleasure, he was remarkably good at it. Fortunately we had a little garden outside my classroom that he tended with great skill. He was also very good with tools, so he fixed anything in the classroom that needed attention. My classroom had a lifeskills focus, so there were many occasions for Oscar to work with his hands.
On the weekends, he went to work with his dad who was a gardener. Oscar worked hard, both physically and serving as translator to his father and customers. Child labor? No, Oscar spoke often about this work with fondness. It was his other classroom, and he was an apt student. Oscar is now working part time at Smart and Final, through the high school ROP program. He'll graduate from high school on time in June, then look at options for full time work. Meeting Oscar again meant so much to me. Most of the students I taught in Claremont are lost to me forever, because they were yanked back to Pomona for the rest of their public school years. Most of the stories I've heard have been stories of hardship, some in the crimelogs of the newspaper. Oscar's story is one full of hope. He is a kind and polite young man, working hard to achieve his goals. He's outshone my highest expectations.
What's to become of the Oscars in our school system, both in and out of special education? With vocational ed progams cut in favor of academic drill and kill, and the focus on test scores instead of authentic learning, we are pushing out these alternative learners. Oscar has a lot to give the world: hands-on intelligence, drive, and his laughing smile. He'll make it. In spite of it all. Thanks, Oscar, for reminding me why I am a teacher.