User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

A Beautiful Boy

with 9 comments

During Fall 2020, I taught gifted education at the high school on our south-side. The south-side is known for its low income housing and its primarily Hispanic population. As an itinerant gifted education teacher, I work at several schools. Our district has extremes of schools – high income communities at one extreme, that have the characteristics of private schools, to the other extreme of Title 1 schools with 100% free and reduced lunch programs. I choose to work at these schools. For three years previously, I taught at Title 1 K-6 schools. I wanted to give high school a try. I really wanted it to work but it ended up being too difficult for me. I realized I can better serve younger students. Too many of my students (noting that they were identified as gifted) have mentally and intellectually checked out of school and were flunking many of their classes. Their emotional needs were too vast and deep to be able to concentrate on their academics. For example, I spent an afternoon with two 9th grade gifted girls who were my caseload, one had gotten into trouble for missing for two days. She had been holed up with a 19 year old guy who wouldn’t take her home. They told me stories about their lives that were absolutely heartbreaking – sexual abuse as children, abusive foster care homes, a father in jail for murdering someone, their own sexual promiscuity and drug use.

This leads me to a beautiful boy, Ivan. He was in a STEM class I taught that one semester. He showed up . . . sometimes. At one point, he was gone for a few weeks. I checked to see why and found it he was in juvenile detention. He was on probation (I am not sure why). Because he skipped school, he broke his probation and was put in juvie. He told me that he got in trouble in middle school due to anger problems, but all I saw was a kind, gentle and soft spoken young man. He told me about only living with an older brother because his mother lived in a town up north with “some guy.” He also told me he thought a lot about what was going on in the world and spent time on the internet looking up these things he thought about.

Although he rarely did work in my class, spending most of his time on his cell phone finding and listening to music, I really, really liked him. I couldn’t help but light up when he walked into the classroom, which was typically late. There was something special about him. I missed him when he was in juvie for two weeks, so much so that when he returned to school and my classroom, I yelled hooray, jumped up, and gave him a big side hug. He smiled at me with his big, bright smile and gave me a big side hug back.

Even with a label of gifted, school met none of his needs. He was only interested in writing and performing rap. He wrote, recorded, and published one of his songs onto an online music platform (I now wish I knew which one). I asked him to play it for me during class. I loved it. His eyes shined with joy and pride when he told me about it and even more so when the other students in the class and I listened to it. Such a beautiful boy!

He was such a beautiful boy. I used past tense, “was,” because this past week we got an email from the high school principal that Ivan was murdered due to gun violence.

I have spent the week wondering. I wonder if the schools better addressed his passion for music with his days spent at school writing lyrics, composing music, and recording and publishing his rap songs – maybe he would have been in a recording studio rather than roaming the streets in the very early morning hours. I wonder what would have been different if the schools focused more in his social-emotional needs than on his academics. I wonder what would have been different if the schools better addressed the socio-cultural factors and hardships that he faced everyday – maybe the cycle of violence and poverty could have been broken. Finally, I wonder what kind of man Ivan would have turned out to be since he was such a beautiful boy (young man).

Parting Shot: I sent the high school principal the photo of Ivan that I took of him working on an Arduino (bottom of post). She sent the news my photo. I guess they asked her for one. It was my final gift to him – being able to show him to the world as engaged in a school project; showing him at his best – I have a hunch there are possibly no other photos like this of him. RIP, Ivan – you really did rock!

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

July 18, 2020 at 2:53 pm

9 Responses

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  1. I’m so sorry for your loss. I taught thirty-one years (elementary school), but so many of our children’s stories are heartbreaking. You see all their promise, often coupled with the dysfunctional environment they’re living in. I couldn’t help but question why I was so lucky to come from a loving family.


    July 18, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    • Life really doesn’t deal out fair hands.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      July 20, 2020 at 2:33 pm

  2. Good morning,
    I am a high school teacher in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada. I have followed your posts for years and just wanted to let you know how much your last post touched me. I have had the privilege of teaching students from grades 2-12. Teaching in low-socioeconomic high schools is very rewarding. Students like your Ivan may be difficult to reach due to their personal issues but when you do… it feels incredible. i have found that for these students building relationships is more important than academics. Thanks for sharing.

    Sincerely Linda Matuga
    Department Head
    Social Sciences- Family Studies
    Huron Heights Secondary School

    Chair: Ontario Family Studies, Social Sciences Leadership Council
    Secretary: Ontario Teachers Federation, Curriculum Forum-Steering Committee

    Matuga, Linda

    July 18, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    • Thank you, Linda.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      July 18, 2020 at 6:50 pm

  3. Beautiful, heartfelt post. It’s not always the school system. When teachers build a relationship and love children, learning happens. Social and emotional skills are far more important than academics. A teacher (like you) can make all the difference in the world.


    July 19, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    • Thanks Jennie – I am a counselor who became in a teacher. I think all teachers should have a few counseling classes as part of their teacher education programs.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      July 20, 2020 at 2:29 pm

  4. Jackie, your post is poignant and heartbreaking. As teachers, we touch students in profound ways. Yet, as much as we wish to, we cannot save them from the pitfalls of this world. The years between 14 and 21 seem to be when a person is most vulnerable to falling through the cracks. Not all make it into adulthood.
    I can imagine that just as you were inspired by Ivan, he was also inspired and felt your love and care. Sometimes a few minutes or hours are all we get to connect with another human being. But those moments are precious and important. Thanks for sharing this touching story with us.

    Leigh Jardine

    July 20, 2020 at 2:23 pm

    • The cracks can be huge. Ivan was well liked by a lot of the adults in the school. Thanks for your thanks.

      Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

      July 20, 2020 at 2:28 pm

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