A Memorable Graduate

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Another school year is over, and it's almost graduation time. As a third grade teacher, it's always bittersweet to see students leaving for middle school. Every fifth grade promotion, I remember one student.

This student - I'll call her Toni - was tough, even for a third grader. She lived with her father and four older brothers - Mom was in prison. Dad was rarely employed, and the gang member brothers were in frequent trouble with the law. Toni wore the same dirty jeans to school every day, with unkempt hair, and a don't mess-with-me-attitude. She could take out any kid on the schoolyard with one punch.

She was often sent to the principals office and with her sullen back-talk, she was not popular at school with students or teachers.

But she tried. Her smudged homework was stained with whatever can of food had been dinner. I liked her even after she got in trouble for using the f-word at school, and admired how her rough exterior helped her get through her rough circumstances.

I watched Toni navigate my third grade, then fourth and fifth, with swagger and street smarts. But fifth grade graduation was coming up. On this last day of school, fifth graders - boys in neckties and girls in grown-up dresses - pose for family photos, speeches given, certificates presented.


I wondered about Toni, a dad we'd never met and her one pair of jeans. But promotion day ceremony, as students solemnly marched into the auditorium, there was Toni. Dressed in a pressed white blouse and a blue skirt, hair neatly brushed. And, though she didn't get a single award, she sat beaming on the stage.

I asked about Toni's graduation makeover. Turned out the principal had brought in some of her own daughter's clothes for Toni, and helped do her hair, filling in for that mother who couldn't be there. And it dawned on me schools are so much more than reading, writing and arithmetic - how teachers and principals do what it takes, no matter what, to help our students.

I saw Toni once, years later. She was a teenager, walking into Juvenile Hall. Visiting someone, a brother, maybe. She didn't recognize me. And she was dressed in dirty jeans.

But, in my mind's eye, I will forever see the pretty girl that graduation day, dressed in pressed clothes and a beautiful smile.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches for the San Francisco Unified School District.