Every adult in the school warned me about this student. In fact, every adult seemed afraid of this 14-year-old boy and dared not engage him in any way. Any discussion regarding this student centered around his physical aggressiveness and prowess, often ending in such statements as, "Any time you see him approach someone in any kind of physical way, call security." In fairness, this student had caused physical harm to other students, at times going further than the situation called for.
As weeks and months went by I didn't have many interactions with this young man, other than me saying his name and hello. Most times, the greetings sounded like "Hey (student name), what's up?" or "Hey (student name), how's it going?" Sometimes he would look at me, other times he wouldn't, but he never said hello back. He was often a no-show in my class, and when he was, he was quiet, reserved and difficult to engage.
I remember one day walking out of the school to the subway. I felt in my jacket pocket the tennis ball I had found on the concrete and asphalt playground, which I had forgotten to place with the school equipment. As I walked down the block, I saw this young man standing just off the curb, looking as if he was ready to run across the street to beat the traffic coming in both directions. To this day I do not know why, I took the tennis ball from my pocket, called his name and tossed it to him. As that brand-new looking, bright green tennis ball flew through the air towards him, his eyes lit up. When he caught the ball, he looked at me with a smile, expression of disbelief and a look of joy, usually reserved for something more profound and said, "Thanks!" After saying, "You're welcome," I went on my way. Before turning the corner I looked back and saw him bouncing the ball and running with it at the same time.
The next time I saw him, he looked at me with a smile. As the year progressed, we had some conversations; one in particular is engrained in my memory. We had a tough conversation about a physical altercation he had with a female relative in order to protect a younger sibling. I know this conversation would have never happened if it hadn't been for the initial interactions. I didn't do anything amazing or extraordinary. I was simply being human, and the impact was profound. It turns out this student had a profound interest in and knowledge of biology and kinesiology, though it took some time for him to be comfortable sharing this knowledge. This young man eventually, through some trials and tribulations, became a professional sports trainer, and to my knowledge has continued along this path.
It may be that a similar experience when I was around this young man's age shaped my actions. I was having a bit of a hard time at that point in my life. Most of the adults in my life,especially teachers and administrators, always came down hard on me and never spoke to me, only at me; except for my history teacher. He talked to me about everything other than school and my "troubles." From our conversations we realized we both loved baseball and both really disliked the Yankees... That Fall the Dodgers and the Yankees were playing in the World Series. He and I were some of the few that predicted the Dodgers would win in six games. As luck would have it, they did. At the school dance, which was a day or two after the Dodgers won, my history teacher, seeing me come in with my friends, came across the whole room, shook my hand and in his big booming voice and John Belushi smile said, "Did we tell them in six, or did we tell them in six?!?"
The fact that this happened in front of many staff members changed the way the rest of that year went for me and most likely how my life unfolded afterwards. This also set the stage for me to be deeply affected by his presentation on the Holocaust. Certainly the facts of what happened were presented; more importantly, the focus was on the human element, feelings, emotions, morality and our role in social and human justice. As he wrapped up and saw how we were all affected, he said, "If you are sickened by this, if you feel sick to your stomach, make sure this never happens again." This changed my life. From that moment on, I saw myself as connected to something bigger and as a person who could do his part for social change.
Real education is human. Perhaps no other arena is more human than education. Any interaction between two or more human beings brings with it emotional, social, physical, spiritual, physical and intellectual aspects. Real education or human education doesn't just engage these areas but embraces them, sometimes by the simplest of human interactions. Pursuing knowledge together, inviting each other to learn and arousing each other's curiosity is tied to emotions and feelings. Real education goes beyond the acquisition of skills or knowledge. It gets to the heart of social relationships and ultimately what it means to be human.