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From Jail to Harvard: Why Teachers Change the World

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August has arrived, and you're heading back to the classroom, and all the familiar challenges will meet you there on Day One: curriculum that may not quite fit, parents who engage only to blame, accountability testing, and students who have the potential to do something great, but are spending all their energy on sapping yours. At some point during the next nine or ten months, you'll probably wonder whether your efforts will be valued and whether what you do truly matters.

Let me encourage you. Your efforts are valued, and what you do truly does matter. I'm living proof.

In 1978, I was a sixth-grade Hispanic male from a single parent, low-income home. I had undiagnosed depression and was using street drugs to self-medicate. I had a history of interaction with the legal system, and spent most of my school days walking either to or from the principal's office for behavioral issues. Where there was a boundary to be pushed or a rule to be broken, I pushed and broke. As I became me, I drew an undeniable conclusion: I was grossly inadequate, somehow simply not capable of functioning properly in the world. My wisest option, I further concluded, would be to quit caring.

Three things happened in my sixth grade year that made life particularly difficult. First, two of my friends were murdered in a drug deal. Second, a group of young men broke into my house, held me back, and sexually assaulted my cousin. Third, I was arrested for possession. My life was definitely headed in the wrong direction, and it was picking up speed.

Child Protective Services was never involved with our family, but my mom was desperate to salvage what remained of my childhood. She voluntarily relinquished her guardianship, and I was sent to live with friends of our family in Katy, Texas, several hundred miles away from all I had come to know in the Rio Grande Valley. The change was helpful, at least outwardly. With predictable meals, clothing and emotional support, I managed decent grades and, for the most part, stayed out of trouble. Inwardly, though, I continued to struggle with depression, and the frequency, intensity and duration of my symptoms increased as I approached high school graduation. I knew at age eighteen I would be on my own, and I was terrified.

After high school graduation, just as I feared, the bottom fell out. I had returned to self-medicating with street drugs, scratching out a living as a dishwasher at a fast food restaurant. Everything I owned fit into the bottom half of a hallway closet, and my most valued possession was the box of journals I had been filling since sixth grade. After a particularly long and dark day, I reached for my journal and I noticed the edges of two pieces of paper sticking out of a journal buried in the stack: two letters, one written to me by JoElla Exley, my senior English teacher, and one written to me by Polly McRoberts, my senior Creative Writing teacher. Here are excerpts:

"You are extremely intelligent, but most importantly, you have a good heart. I know you will use your talents to help your fellow man, and that is the most satisfying life a person can have." --JoElla Exley

"You have wisdom and insight beyond your tender years. Keep being you. You are a special person." -Polly McRoberts

Good heart? Wisdom and insight? These descriptors -- wholly at odds with my self-assessment -- haunted me. I sat with these letters for weeks and weeks, and I landed on what if? What if they are right about me?

So with no idea about how to pay for it, how I would get there, or how I would manage it with my full time job, I (very secretly, in case it didn't work) enrolled in one college class: Introduction to English. A semester later, I had earned my first college credit! So, I took another class. Then, just before I turned twenty-seven, I graduated with my Bachelors of Arts in English. I continued through graduate school, eventually earning a Ph.D. in psychology and then a D. Min. in pastoral counseling, with clinical training at Harvard Medical School, the Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and the University of Oxford. I count it an honor to work now as a consulting psychologist in K-12 public schools.

In a few days you'll stand in front of a group of students and I can almost guarantee that there will be at least one 'Adam Saenz' there, a kid who has potential and doesn't know it, a soul who could change the world a little bit if they could only get the right instruction and encouragement to lift them him out of their false sense of who they believe themselves to be.

Please allow me this opportunity to speak to you on behalf of those students:

"Hello sir. Hello ma'am. Thank you for coming to work today. I don't know where I'll end up when I'm nineteen. I may be earning academic honors at an Ivy League university. I may be serving my country in the military. I may be an employed high school graduate. I may be in jail. I may not even make it to nineteen. Only God knows. Regardless of where I might be and what I might be doing at nineteen, our interaction -- you, the teacher and me, the student -- shapes me.

You need to know that even though this school building sometimes may seem like a zoo to you, in some very important ways this school building can be the safest place on earth for me. You need to know that when you are teaching me, even at your worst, you have the potential to be a better influence on me than much of what (and who) I experience off this campus. And you need to know that when you love me, even at your worst, you have the potential to love me more sincerely and effectively than many people I'm around away from this campus.

I take a standardized test once a year that measures some of what you've taught me. Life gives me tests every day that measures all of what you've taught me. So, thank you for teaching me, especially in those moments when every part of my being is communicating that I don't want to be taught by you. And thank you for loving me, especially in those moments when every part of my being is communicating that I don't want to be loved by you.

The bottom line is that I need you. I need to know that you care about me. I need to know that I do not make the rules. And I may never be fortunate enough to appreciate and express that -- or even realize that -- but I do hope you are courageous enough never to forget it.

Thank you for coming to work today, sir. Thank you for coming to work today, ma'am. Please take care of yourself.

Please be well. Please come back tomorrow."


Dr. Adam Saenz is a clinical psychologist, counselor, author and speaker. His new book is called "The Power of a Teacher." To learn more about Dr. Saenz and The Power of a Teacher, please visit http://thepowerofateacher.com/