This is the first post in a six-part series, in which each Fellow looks back on their year in the PLUS Center and shares what they will take with them as they embark on their next ventures. First up is Jenn, who spent the year at Penn Treaty and will be attending Penn State for a Ph.D./J.D. program in Educational Theory and Policy in the fall.
In my first week at Penn Treaty, I met R. He came in and asked us who we were, and bounced around the room like an errant pinball. He spoke at 72 RPMs, often telling multiple stories at once. There was an energy to everything he did that was unavoidable and infectious. I asked him if he had anything in particular to work on, and he pulled out a pile of crumpled, backpack-worn papers encompassing the work for all of his various classes. I quickly discovered that his attention could only be held for a little while before he would glaze over or run away or start talking about hockey.
Over the coming weeks, we worked together every day, often for hours. I read to him, and we learned about branches of government and the Constitution. I haven’t taken chemistry since high school, but R had failed the class last year, and we weren’t going to let that happen again. Together, we read the chapters about the periodic table and electron configuration, and I made diagrams to show him covalent bonds and chemical reactions. I told him honestly that I had done very poorly in the class when I took it over a decade ago, both because it was hard and because I didn’t put in the work. I needed him to know that struggle is not the same as stupidity, and that he was capable. When I didn’t understand a concept, we brought Frank in, and pushed through as a group.
By the end of the semester, R was bounding in every day with work to do. His friends started calling him “12+ R.” Though it bummed him out in the beginning, he was embracing the moniker, responding to their taunts with, “Let’s see you get an A!” and “My work is all done!” His teachers were impressed, and shared regular updates on his progress. When R knew that his work involved complicated chemistry, he would run in and loudly exclaim, “Ready to work, Frank?” He became comfortable working on his own, he asked for help when he needed it, and he could explain (with only a little bit of help) concepts he was learning in his own words.
At the end of the third quarter, after working hard all year, R accomplished something amazing. He earned, for the first time since elementary school, As in two classes. He came to the center, beaming, holding out the report card for everyone to see. When he smiled, his whole face shone. There was pride radiating from every inch of his small (but mighty) frame. His teachers were proud, and we were proud, and I hope his mom was proud. He worked hard, and he improved, and everyone around him noticed.
At the end of the year, during a staff event, his civics teacher approached me. Mr. L told me that what I had done with R was amazing—that he was a totally different kid, and that my patience was incredible. Other teachers chimed in, at turns thanking me and celebrating my work. I felt overwhelmed—grateful that professionals saw me this way, honored that R had trusted me so much, and a little bit guilty for accepting praise for a thing that had so much more to do with R than it did with me. I thanked the group of teachers for recognizing the change in R, and for not giving up on him when it was incredibly tempting to do so. I definitely cried.
On this penultimate day of my fellowship, I could be proud of so many things that I’ve done or said or learned. I could be proud of workshops and test prep and college apps. I could be proud that I made it to the end. Instead, though, when I think about my year and how to wrap up, I am proud of R. I am proud that he walked across the stage on June 20th in front of his family and accepted a diploma that he truly earned. I am proud that he was nominated for, and won, an award for Resiliency. I am proud to have been a small part of his life for this one brief moment. And finally, I am proud that I was one of the people he ran to at the end of graduation, and that he stood still long enough to let me hug him in front of his friends.