Because I am a parent of 10 children and a grandparent of five (welcome to the world, Jude Matthew!), my world is defined, in large part, by parenting relationships. Even though most of my children are now over 18, my role remains parental . . . the terms of the engagement simply change.
That reality spills over into my non-parental relationships as well, for better and for worse. I can be rather paternalistic with students, with colleagues, and with others. At times, that’s a good thing; sometimes what we need is a caring father, and our own either doesn’t qualify or is not available. At times, it’s a bad thing, when “paternalistic” becomes controlling, limiting the opportunities for others to make choices and to reap the rewards or the losses that go with those choices.
It is this parental perspective that drew me to a story in today’s Tampa Bay Times.
The story is about young Monica Scruggs. It’s about divorce (her parents’) and abandonment (by her father). It’s about tough choices (mom having to working nights) and bad choices . . . all the sorts of bad choices teens and young adults (and some older ones, too) make when they are hurting, confused and angry. It’s about the negative influence of some peers, about reaping what you sow, and, ultimately, about choosing to follow a different path.
Monica Scruggs will receive her high school diploma during this season of commencement ceremonies. She’ll receive it later than most of her age peers in the high school she attended, but she’ll graduate, and is looking ahead to the possibility of a college education and making something of her own life and that of her young child.
One absolutely must give credit to Ms. Scruggs for deciding that the road she was on led nowhere and choosing a different path. Similarly, she must be applauded for giving priority to creating a life worth living for her little daughter as well as for herself.
But one also must give credit to the people who did not give up on her, the people who prodded her not to give up on herself.
People like Diana Keller, who was Ms. Scruggs’ math teacher at some point in her high school career, and became her tutor as Ms. Scruggs refocused and sought to complete her high school work.
Ms. Keller had seen Ms. Scruggs skipping classes, slipping away from campus to do other things that would feed her downward spiral. She undoubtedly witnessed the days with no homework turned in, and the exams missed or failed. One guesses, from reading about Ms. Scruggs’ path, that Ms. Keller also received smart-mouthed comments and overt disrespect from Ms. Scruggs during the worst periods of her rejection of her own future.
But Ms. Keller never gave up on Monica Scruggs. And when Ms. Scruggs needed help to complete the math requirement for her high school diploma, Ms. Keller gave it.
And Monica Scruggs, this year, will become a high school graduate because of it.
I have a very dear friend who has been down a similar road. I am all too aware of the dangers and obstacles that probably await Ms. Scruggs, not to mention the people who will try to take advantage of her wounds and her needs. Graduating from high school isn’t a guarantee that she won’t fall again, and harder.
But not graduating from high school would increase the odds of failure in life dramatically.
Ms. Keller, the math teacher, didn’t have to be there for Monica Scruggs. She didn’t have to give her time, and encouragement, and confidence when she lacked it herself. It would appear that much of the time Ms. Keller gave was outside of her contractual obligations as a public school teacher. And given Ms. Scruggs’ unfortunate choices in the past, no one could say that Ms. Keller had to give her all of the intangibles that sustained her: patience, encouragement and, yes, love.
The reason this story belongs here, in a blog that focuses on policy and politics, is that it reveals an important truth. It’s not just the programs, or the policies, we put in place. It’s the people who serve the public who make the difference. It’s the people, like Diana Keller, who think of their work not in terms of a job description, but in terms of a commitment to serve the needs of those in need . . . even those who helped create the problem we are now called to solve.
Because we all need second (and third) chances, sooner or later. And it’s people, not just programs, that make those chances reality.