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Rigor for the Teacher

by Bill Madigan

- feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,

As have no slight or trivial influence

On that best portion of a good man's life,

His little, nameless, unremembered, acts

Of kindness and of love.

-“Tintern Abbey” – William Wordsworth

Larry came to my class two weeks after his father was sent to prison and a year and a half since his mother died of drug-related kidney disease.  Tattooed on his forearms, large for all to see, were the words “MEXICAN PRIDE.”  Larry’s first act was to grab my stapler and begin firing staples at people as if it was a Glock 9, and he was a gangster from the Sopranos. He was 15 years old.

Thus began a two-year pilgrimage for Larry and me that saw many harrowing events and challenges. In education, we hear a lot about what rigor is for our students, but with Larry, I learned what rigor means for the teacher.

The administration at the time tried to convince me to write referrals on him as he was causing havoc in other classes as well.  He had been fingered as a possible thief of a teacher’s brand new iTouch, among many other pesky troubles.  On occasion his “deep animal” or amygdala would cause him to bound up on the roof of my classroom after a quick sprint and one step on the wall. Once up, he was so full of the “animal” he would drop his pants and scream his own “barbaric yawp.”

Out of some deep place within, I promised him I would not give up on him.  Somehow I knew deep down this promise would be good for me as well.

Larry was not a schoolboy; Larry howled at the moon.  He never shied away from expressing his rather rich and full humanity.  I struggled with him the whole two years, trying to do right by him and the rest of his classmates, even though he often took the lion’s share of energy.  His only guardians were his aunt and uncle, who pleaded with me NOT to bother them, as they confessed having “no control of him.”  I remember my internal dialogue:  “Accept Larry where he is and grow him as often and well as you can; try not to slight the other kids.”

I still felt powerless.  He never had more than a 44% in my class and he was failing every other course.  That was another issue: I was tasked by the counseling department to try and help him  succeed in all his classes, not only my reading foundations class.  Ironically, Larry was a great reader; he just had so many more interesting things to do.

For Christmas once, he gave me a bottle of Wild Turkey whiskey – brought it to class in a backpack!  He offered it to me slyly before class.  It was his first act of consideration or regard for me.  “I found a whole case!  Merry Christmas, Mr. Madigan!” he beamed.  He refused to tell me any further information when I cross-examined him. 

This was one of many moral quandaries I had with him: did I turn in a 15-year-old young man with his savage history – help start his path towards his father’s lifestyle by notifying the hungry vice principal, or come down hard on him and “erase” his dumb teen decision?  As I write this, I still feel queasy. 

As a matter of fact, there were three actual occasions where I was “sick” before going to school, precisely because I felt so lost with him.  I’d drive to school after being “sick,” overwhelmed with the queasy uncertainty of what to do.  I tried everything in my arsenal and heart, nothing brought Larry close to my expectations as a teacher-this after teaching students of poverty, many in gangs, for the first seven years of my teaching career.

Well, like wandering with Odysseus through the underworld, this went on for two full years.  Many more moral and emotional calisthenics raked through my psyche.  But, Larry finally left my world.  I got him a job at a local grocery store where he remained for three whole months before being fired for “mad dogging” a manager.  I didn’t hear from him except second hand through some of his friends.  I was deeply convinced that I had been a failure for Larry.

Over the next five years, I would occasionally look for him in the obituaries, sadly.  Five weeks ago, I scanned a news article on a huge drug bust done locally by the sheriff’s department looking for his name.  I put so much vital energy into him; I still wondered.

Five days after reading that article, I got an email from his aunt.  She told me Larry was soon to graduate from the police academy. She asked me to please come to the ceremony.  I cried right there in front of my computer; I have tears at this writing.

I went and saw Larry graduate.  He told me he “made it” because of me.

I had pushed and tested Larry on many occasions when I was with him at school – not only academic tests and challenges but also others that had to do with self-respect and discipline – all the right stuff, I thought.

He said it wasn’t any of that stuff.  He said it was because I didn’t give up on him.  That he mattered to someone.

Dr. Larry Brendtro, a famous psychologist and educator of the very “at-risk” shares in his book Deep Brain Learning that a large study done in Hawaii of emotionally disturbed people found that THE most healing element in a troubled soul’s life was “at least one person who cared for the troubled person, over time, without regard to the person’s looks, intelligence or apparent maturation.”  Troubled people who had someone like that healed and became contributing members of society.

So this is deep rigor, the complex crucible of relating with the troubled.  This is the rigor shared by pupil and teacher, which is too often invisible to many of us in education.  This is the hard part of teaching and leading.  There are no easy to read signposts, no easy acquiescence, no easy satisfaction, no ready fulfillment.  Where soul and soul meet in struggle, is the crucible of deep growth.  Leading hurts.  Leading fulfills and more importantly, makes you richer and more ready for future challenges.

I’m convinced this deep rigor is the most miraculous organ of AVID.  It heals and transforms the minds of teacher and pupil.


Bill Madigan will be presenting multiple sessions at this year’s AVID National Conference at the Hilton Bayfront in San Diego, CA, December 6-8.  To learn more about National Conference, see our brochure.

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Reader Comments (3)

Bill, your article reminds me of the multitude of battles and noble efforts that are carried out daily in schools across the nation. AVID teachers reaching out as you did are certainly not uncommon. What is common is to find these teachers establishing a norm as they reach out to give support for those youngsters lost in the gray swirl of uncertainty. For so many of those drifting students, all they know is the past and the present because the future is way beyond their natural horizon. Unless someone steps in and instills the belief that they can succeed and are worthy human beings, they too often wind up in a spiral in which there is little hope of recovery. Larry is a fine example of what can be gained when educators assume responsibility for their own rigor.

I am guessing you will never look at at a bottle of Wild Turkey again without thinking of Larry.

Great story and inspiration.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill Madigan

Bill, You nailed it!

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLauren Ramers

Great piece Bill. This is why we do what we do. Love it.

October 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Mosher

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