I Think We Need to Redefine Success for Students. Here’s Why.

This argument is best illustrated through a tale of two students.

I ran into two former students a few weeks ago, both of whom graduated from high school in May. One, David, I already knew about. My colleagues and I have talked about nothing else at school since we heard the news. He’s just starting college with a full scholarship to a prestigious university, a scholarship awarded to only a handful of kids per year. He was sort of a punk in middle school, when we had him–always a smart kid, and always an academic achiever, but also a questioner and an arguer, one who marched to the beat of his own drummer. And his own drummer rarely thought homework was a good idea.

Every student’s future looks different

I saw David at the public library, and we talked for a little while about his schedule and whether he’d put a loft in his dorm room and whether he was on the campus meal plan. It was amazing; it was a normal conversation. The kind every college-bound kid gets completely sick of by the end of June.  But David’s not your normal college freshman. He grew up in a crappy apartment in a bad part of town, and attended a high school with a graduation rate of 42%. Less than half his peers graduate high school, and he’s got this incredible scholarship and a blindingly-bright future.

A day or two later, while I was still flying high from running into David, another former student visited school and stopped by my classroom. I was teaching, but I obviously dropped everything we had in progress to hug Emily, whom I hadn’t seen in months. It was impossible not to; when else would I get a chance to hold her daughter? You see, Emily and her boyfriend, who is still in high school, have a three-month-old little girl. She’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen. As soon as Emily handed her to me, she burrowed her face into my shoulder and let me snuggle with her and smell her sweet baby smell, and then when she got squirmy she let me bounce her up and down and giggled at me like she was auditioning for a diaper commercial.

That conversation was astonishingly normal, too. While my seventh graders stared at me like I was crazy, Emily and I compared pregnancy notes and talked about baby products and even planned to meet up at the playground near their apartment when the weather cools down a little. It was the kind of conversation I’d have with a friend my own age. But Emily is eighteen.

I think a lot of people—the entire news media, for starters—would look at these two students as a simple dichotomy between failure and success. Both started in more or less the same place. Both attended the same middle and high school; they had some of the same teachers. Now one is on his way to success and life experiences and travel and learning and eventually making a difference in his community, while the other is just another teen mom. We’re tempted to look at that and try to find the fix. How do we take Emily’s story and make it more like David’s? How do we increase the number of Davids we teach and eliminate the Emilys?

Let’s redefine success


But look back at the first sentence of this post, if you will. They both just graduated from high school. My girl, Emily, despite crushing poverty, despite a child born two weeks before final exams, despite morning sickness and swollen ankles and a mother who recently moved back to Mexico, leaving her with little support, graduated from high school. Maybe some people would look at her and see a failure; I am absolutely overcome with pride.

If I could write the script for Emily’s life, which I’d obviously like to do, things would have turned out differently. Little Yareli would’ve come along ten years later in her mother’s life, and Emily would be choosing bedding and decor for her dorm room right now. Her path isn’t easy, and her options at this point are few. But to dwell on that and to ignore the perseverance and determination and boundless optimism that have brought her this far is to miss the most important part of Emily’s—and Yareli’s—story.

These are two success stories. They are unfinished, to be sure.  These kids are eighteen…anything could happen. David could go wild in college and lose his scholarship. Emily could be beaten down by the stress of raising a child in poverty, and Yareli might end up continuing the cycle a few years down the road. But I’m hopeful. These two kids have fought so hard to get where they are now, shown such incredible strength and courage, that I think they’ve got a shot at success on their own terms. Whatever happens in their lives, I’m grateful and humbled to have been a part of it.