Generally Speaking

I caught a glimpse of him yesterday as I unloaded my grocery cart onto the belt. Five foot two inches and unable to see over the magazine display, I waited for the line to move up to see if it was really him. It was, though I checked his name tag to confirm. It had been at least five years since I’d seen Jack* in my tenth grade English classroom.

Jack was one of my Gens, a member of a General-level class designed for students who need more help than your average high school kid. You know, the dumb class.

That’s neither an accurate description of the class nor its students, but let us be frank. No matter how much teachers and administration do to decrease the stigma of being in a Gen class, no matter how successful the students are in that class, the kids think of it and refer to it as the dumb class.

“What type of class is this?” I’d ask. The dumb class, the stupid class, the loser class, they’d say. Many of them were convinced they were dumb simply on the basis of having been placed in a Gen class.

Never mind that some of them had been College Prep students until they leveled down because they thought it’d be an easy A. Never mind that some of them had long ago accepted that they had learning disabilities they could overcome with the right support. Never mind that some of them were literate in multiple languages but English wasn’t one of them. They were in a Gen class, so they, in turn, were dumb.

Most of my fellow General-level teachers fought this inaccuracy constantly. It made me angry, and I let my students see that. I was angry for them. I wanted them to get angry, too. Angry enough to push back.

I was a semi-nightmare in high school. Toward the end of my junior year I found myself moved to a study hall where the teacher basically barred the door with a chair and slept while the kids played Five Finger Fillet, that rapid fire stab-the-desk-between-your-fingers-without-stabbing-your-fingers game.

I’ve joked to those who didn’t know me then that I was voted “Most Likely to be Found Floating Face Down in a River.” If my life was based solely on my high school performance and behavior, that fate was not out of the realm of possibility.

But my life hasn’t been based solely on my high school career. That’s just one part of who I am. Who I was. It took me a while, but eventually I got my act together. Some of the most successful people I know tell similar stories.

Yet even if some of us knew our Gens were more than their current selves, more than their current crises or the ignorant choices some of them made, we feared for them.

It was a precarious faith we held in their potential for greater things.

Yesterday, as the cashier rang up my groceries and my daughter bagged them up, I watched Jack and waited for him to be done with his customer. It had been a long time. I look quite different than I did back then. Not every student whom I remember fondly remembers me similarly.


He looked up. Smiled. “Mrs. Landau! Hey!”

I asked how he was doing, how life was treating him. He’s busy, he told me.

“Working?” I asked.

“And school,” he said, grinning widely. Having earned his associates degree at a local post-secondary school, he’d gone back and was working on a bachelor’s degree.

A bachelor’s degree.

He’s working hard, he told me. Doing well.

I wanted to hug him, to jump up and down and say, “Yes!Yes! You did it!”

I didn’t. I’m sure my daughter is relieved I didn’t, but she could see my joy and smiled. I finished paying for my groceries like a normal person, but in the end I couldn’t help myself.

“I’m so proud of you, Jack,” I told him, grinning. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks,” he told me, blushing just like he used to as a tenth grader whether he was being reprimanded or praised. “Thanks.”

Generally speaking, it was one of the happiest teacher moments of my life.

*name changed for anonymity.

12 Comments on “Generally Speaking

  1. JUST A NOTE: I do not count post-secondary education as the top or the only measure of success.

    I'm just thinking about students' perception of their own academic potential here.


  2. Yeah for the effort you made on his behalf. You have a way with all kids but especially the hard to reach ones. They say that our students are a gift to a future we will not see. It is always great to get a glimpse of that future.


  3. Love this, Beth. Takes me right back to the fierce love I have for all of my GED students and my desire to fight for their perceptions of their potential….


  4. I am a bit skeptical of the “truthiness” of this story as you describe yourself as 5'2″.


  5. Ah Beth. I am your favorite English teacher stuck in a science teacher's brain and body.


  6. Its teachers like you Beth that help kids believe in themselves. Plus I love happy ending stories!


  7. Thank you, Mrs. Landau! While I cannot speak on behalf of my fellow colleagues, I trust of most of us appreciate you, and all our teachers, for the knowledge and skills you have instilled in us. But more than any textbook knowledge you can give us, we appreciate most your confidence in our potential.


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