There’s a short piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that captures the feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I look back over my time in South Africa:
Patrick began coming to class. Like a matchmaker, I helped him find books he might like. When he read, he laughed out loud. And reading made him want to write. It was painful, at times, to watch Patrick write, because half of what he wrote he erased. Every word that let him down he viewed as a personal failure — he wrote like a writer. I took away his pencil and gave him a pen.
His progress made me happy. By the spring, Patrick’s reading had jumped two levels. At a school ceremony, he won the award for “Most Improved.” He looked surprised. Sheepishly, he walked up to the stage. He turned to the students, who were still clapping, and then, suddenly, he raised both arms up in the air: a victory pose. Everybody laughed.
It was some two and a half years later, when I was at law school in the Northeast, that I learned Patrick was arrested for stabbing and killing someone….
I haven’t been able to resist guilty feelings over Patrick. What if I’d stayed? And I’ve wondered if my sense of Patrick was faulty; whether I saw only the parts I wanted to see. But isn’t any teacher who tries to bring out the best in her students inclined to see them in the warmest light?
What happens when you leave and can’t give the kind of close support and attention that may have been the only thing responsible for any kind of “success” you had? What happens when you just pick up and leave?