Thursday, January 14, 2010


The great moments, the moments that make teaching worthwhile, are not moments of grandeur. The rewards that make the job worthwhile are both subtle and precious, jewels in time that vanish like birds feet in falling snow. The magic in teaching is forever fleeting, brief, a flash of lightning that burns vividly in memory before vanishing into the ether.

Blink, and you'll miss the magic completely. Be inattentive, and the magic burns away before you had a chance to catch it.

But whenever the magic occurs, its always a delightful surprise.

Today the magic strikes in the most unlikely of all places: the counselor's office. I spot a former student, newborn sitting in her lap. For a second, I don't recognize her, her baby surprises me. "Hey, Mr. Leiken," she cries out happily, "I'm getting my diploma!"

If there was ever a student that deserved a diploma, this girl was the model. After school, every day, often until five o'clock, studying for tests, finishing assignments - this girl refused to give up. At times it seemed hopeless, her disabilities hindered her from passing the exit exam, even the most basic assignments were time intensive, labors worthy of Hercules.

Step by step, word by painstaking word, holding her hand through essays and tests, we pushed the student through.

After four long years, she finally completed all of her core class requirements. At graduation she walked with the rest of her class, and was handed a certificate of completion.

But no diploma. That's reserved for those who can pass the exit exam.

But I'm just a stand in. Ms. Garcia deserves the lion's share of the credit. As much as I helped, Sara is the one this kid owes her diploma.

But now the rules have changed. The state is granting students with disabilities an exemption. The exit exam, at least for the time being, is no longer a requirement. The kid is getting her diploma, and I'm the one being thanked.

I feel awkward. I don't really deserve the thanks. Sara is the one that should be here. I give the kid Sara's number. "Call Ms. Garcia." I state firmly. "She needs to know."

"I will Mr. Leiken."

Four grueling treacherous years, four years of negotiating with teachers, rearranging schedules, dozens of meetings, talks with parents, countless hours tutoring - all for a brief moment of thanks.

Ironically, the person who deserves it most isn't even here. I have to accept the gratitude on her behalf.

The moment is over. I almost blinked and missed it.
Later in the day another former student shows up, a hard worker who was also unable to pass the exit exam because of his learning disabilities with math.

"Look, Mr. Leiken," he proclaims, beaming with pride, "I got my diploma."

The class looks at him with something akin to awe. "You see kids, you can do it!" I start clapping and everyone applauds him. He blushes, not sure how to handle the abundance of praise.

Poof! Another brief flash, an instant of joy. It's over.

Some teachers can go years without a moment of magic. They've stopped looking. I've gotten two moments in a single day.

I'll never blink.

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