Updated: Feb 11, 2020
The third high school I went to was pretty great. It was a gifted and talented school, a magnet school, with kids from different neighborhoods all across the city nestled in a wing of a big public school in the ghetto. The school was crazy-high performing and a bit eccentric, and the teachers really seemed to like their jobs. Gifted kids that almost entirely followed or exceeded expectations, freedom to teach outside of the curriculum, all the resources you could ask for; it was a pretty cool place.
And I had a bunch of cool teachers. You know, "cool teachers." I had teachers who joked with kids in adult ways, who cursed. I had teachers who played video games and listened to great music or played sports. Teachers who were honest about their lives to the point of oversharing, (which was exactly the level of honesty I needed to form trust at that age). Teachers would even stop by our high school parties to make sure everyone was doing all right and nothing untoward was going on.
And then there was Mr. Huey. Mr. Huey was not cool, not even a little bit. He was older, or maybe he wasn't, but he seemed to carry himself in that way that makes a 35-year-old look like a 50 year old. He kept a non-ironic, Ron Burgundy mustache and thick, square-rimmed glasses decades before they came back into style. He would have been a proto-hipster if it weren't for the cane he used and his surly demeanor. He had had polio as a child and limped heavily through the halls. He was pot-bellied and stationary in class, propped up on a stool, delivering college-level lectures straight with no chaser. He cold called, called out misbehavior, and had no patience for foolishness. His tests were fucking hard. During one class, his stool slid, and he fell to the ground. He accepted no help—even barked at the students who got out of their seats to assist him.
I learned in his classes, which wasn't rare for me, but I also worked in his class, and that was rare. I did homework. I had a study group! By which I mean two friends and I got together the night before essays were due and co-wrote three essays, each signed by “Captain B Student.” Mr. Huey did not find this funny. I turned things in on time, was never tardy to class, even as I was dropping out of school and failing every other course.
When I dropped out, I was an anomaly. Everyone else was getting national merit scholarships and full rides to Yale, etc. At my quirky school, full of "cool" teachers, no one really knew what to do with me. I was close or at least cordial with the staff and had won "Office Assistant of the Year" three years running. Most of my teachers were sorry to hear that I was dropping out, but they remained optimistic about my future.
"Oh you'll be fine."
"He'll land on his feet, I'm sure."
"Make sure you have a plan."
Some cracked jokes: "Derek Davidson, ladies and gentlemen, destined for greatness under a bridge someday."
And then there was Mr. Huey. He was the last teacher I asked to sign my papers to officially unenroll. "That's stupid. That's an idiotic thing to do, a mistake. Here's your forms. Get off campus. Don't hang around and shake hands and smile. This is stupid. If you aren't going to be a student, you don't get to be here. You're making a big mistake. Go home."
I was floored. And angry. Hurt I went home and tried to shake the interaction from my mind. I tried to discount him in my mind; "That mean old cripple. He's just bitter about life, can't let someone else do things their way."
I went on with my life and was mostly successful in righting my path, but couldn't really get Mr. Huey's admonition out of my mind. It wasn't until I was a teacher myself that I understood it. My other teachers, the ones that had wished me well, were telling themselves that everything would be fine, that I would be a productive member of society, that their time as my teacher hadn't been a waste, or ultimately, that it wasn't their fault. They were fine with shaking my hand and smiling hopefully because my drop out didn't really matter to them personally. I was just a student.
But to Mr. Huey, I was a stain on his record. He took it personally that I had wasted his time. He took it personally that he had invested in me, cared about me (in his own surly way), graded my papers, took opportunities from other children to participate and receive tutoring or redirection and that his investment had fallen flat. He felt accountable for my mistake.
My other teachers weren't worried about me failing. It might be said that they were equally unconcerned with my success. They taught in a way that made their lives pleasant: friendly interactions with gifted students whose success was all but guaranteed, no matter what kind of teaching they got. Mr. Huey taught in a way that made everyone miserable. But it was the sort of misery you experience when attacking adversity. He would call that misery hard work, and he would encourage you to meet it head on.
I don't teach like Mr. Huey did. I am able to be mobile in the classroom. I try to tailor my lessons to the audience, rather than giving the same sequence of lectures every year whether the room is packed or empty. I pay attention to the way people (including students) feel. But I understand the gravity of this work because of him and only him. When I, and everyone else around me, was willing to pass accountability for my success on to a vague hope: "He'll make it somehow," Mr. Huey took it on himself to own my poor choices as his own. My success in his class was his success. My dropout also his. He showed me what commitment to this work is, and that may be the best lesson I've ever learned.