There are numerous reasons that students don’t do well in school. Sometimes it’s related to, for example, learning challenges, an inability to connect with an instructor, or simply being bored. Any of these scenarios can lead to a student acting-out, not doing their assignments, engaging in inappropriate activities/behaviors, or worse --- such as leaving school without a diploma/degree or experiencing negative outcomes (e.g., going to jail, an inability to obtain meaningful employment).
These scenarios are relevant to me as a former at-risk student because most of these descriptions convey the challenges I experienced on my journey toward academic success. However, I credit the foundation for my academic development to a no nonsense, tough talking, and unrelenting principal --- Ms. Gwen Felder.
Ms. Felder and I most likely wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for my horrific academic performance. In the 10th grade, I failed 6 of 7 classes because I didn’t connect to the teaching methodology used, was a high-energy student who needed/wanted meaningful engagement, associated with individuals who didn’t care about school, and made bad choices to use drugs. As a result, I repeated 10th grade and was assigned to Ms. Felder’s office.
It didn’t take long after the school year started for Ms. Felder and me to become acquainted. I don’t remember if our initial meeting was for academic performance reasons or attendance issues. Nevertheless, Ms. Felder made it clear that my negative behavior wouldn’t be allowed or tolerated. Furthermore, she provided tough direction that I didn’t want, but really needed at that time. Our ongoing conversations didn’t immediately change my behavior; although, it was the first time an educator demonstrated any concern for me, my performance, or my future.
The previous school year I didn’t receive any inquiries about my poor performance or any offers of assistance from my teachers, counselor, or principal. The only conversation about my academic performance was shortly before the end of my initial 10th grade school year. During a parent-teacher conference, the principal directed me to leave high school to get a job. After hearing this direction, my mother said, “It’s your life… make a choice!” Then, without delay, I said, “I want to remain in school.”
The difference during my second attempt at 10th grade was Ms. Felder --- who was everywhere I didn’t want her to be. She was always in my business: checking-in, providing guidance, and supporting my growth. I didn’t want her involvement, but it’s one of the best things that happened in my life. This seemingly unbearable year with Ms. Felder initiated a change in my thinking and behavior, but unfortunately it would take many years before my performance and expectations for myself would slowly change.
My educational journey was very difficult, as I would graduate high school in the bottom 8% of my class and subsequently leave two colleges due to academic challenges. Part of the reason that I kept pushing forward was that I remembered that Ms. Felder told me to do better and have higher expectations for myself.
After many years of academic struggles, I graduated with my undergraduate degree from an unlikely and prestigious school --- American University. As I prepared for graduation, I sent my commencement announcement to Ms. Felder to let her know that I was about to graduate. A few years later, I would earn a couple of graduate degrees from The George Washington University. Also, after an extensive professional career, I would return to one of the schools I left due to academic challenges to teach college-level business classes. Furthermore, I would later create an educational nonprofit organization “Saving Our Communities at Risk Through Educational Services (SOCARTES – www.socartes.org)” to help at-risk communities, including teaching inmates about life, business, and soft skills.
My story is a strong example as to the reasons that educators shouldn’t give-up on a student too soon. There may be countless issues that prevent a student from excelling at a moment in time. This doesn’t mean that the same student won’t excel at a later time with guidance, support, and development --- as there’s not a time limit on achieving educational or professional success.
As for me, prior to meeting Ms. Felder, I didn’t have any considerations about the negative impact of my behavior on my future options (e.g., life, career). However, something she said stuck, pushed, and helped me to develop greater expectations for myself. It’s important to note that, at times, it might appear that a message communicated to a student wasn’t received; however, sometimes it might take a while for a message to really be processed. Moreover, whenever someone demonstrates real caring and compassion, the message can process further --- even if from outward appearances the message appears to be lost. Therefore, the lesson is... don’t stop trying because a message doesn’t appear to be reaching a student. Please don’t give-up too easily on a student without earnest attempts, especially if someone has potential and its needlessly wasted.
In November 2015 out-of-curiosity, I searched for Ms. Felder online. Over a few hours, I called some of the numbers associated with her name but didn’t locate her. As I was about to give-up, I called another number and heard a very familiar voice. I immediately knew it was her --- Ms. Felder!!! I excitedly left a message and anxiously awaited her call. Then, almost 24 hours later, my phone rang and I began to speak to someone who I hadn’t spoken to in 30 years. As we reconnected and reminisced, we committed to get together soon.
In advance of our meeting, I was compelled to write this piece to publicly say “Thank You”!!! If it wasn’t for you --- Ms. Felder, I most certainly would have left high school and with it most likely the possibility of achieving my potential.
Ms. Gwen Felder: Thank you for being there, caring, supporting, teaching, and driving this once unfocused and at-risk youth. In a large part (outside of my mother), I became the man I am because of ‘you’. Please know that the lessons you taught me are now shared with at-risk students and inmates through my work to help them to be and do better, too.
This heartfelt article conveys to Ms. Felder that I haven’t forgotten and won’t ever forget the compassionate, exceptional, and inspirational educator that forever changed – and perhaps saved – my life.
Review my work to inspire individuals in at-risk communities: www.slyoung.com/inspired.html
award-winning educator, mental health advocate, social entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, author/writer, program executive, and radio host