10/13/2011 06:08 pm ET | Updated Dec 13, 2011

All The Reasons My Students Should Not Succeed

Whenever people suggest that it must be tough being an inner-city high school teacher, my response is that what is tough is being an inner-city high school student.

This time of year I am reminded how true that is.

With college applications due within the next two to five months, the seniors are asking for help with their personal statements and I am finding out the depths of what they have endured. And it's sad and sometimes -- even after twenty years -- shocking.

And inspiring -- because of what these children have accomplished despite their circumstances. And terrifying -- because there isn't always yet certainty that circumstances will not ultimately doom them. Still, these students are the ones who have averted the disasters of gang affiliation, gang violence drug addiction, early parenthood, and the general apathy of low personal expectations.

One girl (with high honors every semester of high school) alluded, in her personal statement, to years of her mother's abuse and referred quite casually to life in a group home where she's had more than 20 roommates, had virtually every possession of hers stolen -- including undergarments -- and recently roomed with a 16-year-old prostitute whose pimp stalks the foster home.

A boy with similar academic accomplishments became homeless last year because his parents discovered that he had a boyfriend -- and now feels he's sold his soul by renouncing his sexual identity to his parents so that he can have a roof over his head.

Another honors student recently found out her father has another family and she and her mother might soon be evicted because he hasn't paid the rent in half a year.

Yet another honors student remembers a four-and-a-half hour car ride with grandmother to visit her father in jail; the grandmother forgot the girl's birth certificate and so the girl had to stay in the waiting area for another two hours.

Every year I assure students that they need not have a harrowing or heartbreaking story in order to write an effective personal statement or to get into a good college. But too many of my students don't have to think hard to tell a story that makes me want to weep.

Other students have spent their lives virtually locked away in their homes by parents trying desperately to protect them from the mean streets. These young men and women look with anticipation and trepidation at the impending expansion of their world. Ironically, these students are less likely to crumble when they are on their own. It is those who've already been on their own, I've observed -- those who aren't really leaving anything behind -- who more often struggle with being away at college.

Pressures have already started mounting on those high school seniors who have little or no family support -- including the pressure to write a personal statement that will stand out, that will demonstrate writing skill, maturity, personality and character. Hopefully pressure like that which produces a diamond -- opportunities for students to learn important lessons about writing, about taking stylistic risks, about the hard work of revising till it's right, testing every word and every idea. And lessons about their lives -- putting them into a context, understanding where they've been and what their young lives have meant before they, hopefully, go somewhere and transform themselves.

And, really, those will be the more important -- more lasting -- personal statements: what they do once they get into college and what they do when they get out.