*Names have been changed.
Jacob is probably the wrong choice for me to begin this series, but I can’t help it. I think the common perception of Jacob is wrong; I don’t think the world truly understands what it is that makes this kid absolutely incredible. See, Jacob is already celebrated as remarkable. Teachers praise him all the time, his peers know him as one of the “smart” ones, and his parents push him to do extraordinary things on a daily basis. Also, Jacob isn’t a teenager yet. He was in 6th grade when I knew him last year. So why would I choose to write about him, when I said I’d be writing about teenagers?
Honestly? Jacob is one of my favorites. I’ll admit it. He tugs at my heartstrings. But not because he’s a good student or polite or all those things that usually get a kid labelled a “teacher’s pet” (though he is all those things). Rather, Jacob and I connected because I saw something else in him, and I think he was dying for someone to see something else. He’s an example of what happens when schools pigeon-hole their own students. Most people saw a young man that was respectful, worked hard, and had mastered a high school level understanding of math and science in 6th grade. All of that is true, but when we encounter a kid like that, we run the risk of not looking any further, confining him to a box of just being smart and good at math and science. But I was his English teacher, so I was privileged to see something else.
I saw a young man that was keenly observant. His classroom seat of choice was next to the window, and he spent a good amount of time staring out that window. If any other student did that while I was teaching, I’d tell them to turn around and pay attention, but it didn’t take long for me to figure out that he was paying attention. He might get distracted if something unusual happened outside, but for the most part he was completely clued in on everything going on around him in class while his eyes wandered outside. Still staring out the window, he would raise his hand and give an excellent answer to a question, or he would burst out laughing when I or a classmate said something funny. It wasn’t uncommon for Jacob to get a case of the giggles so bad that he literally fell out of his chair laughing. And his laugh was contagious. When you look at a kid that can’t stop laughing just from the joy of life, you can’t help but chuckle yourself.
Jacob clearly excelled academically, but what went less acknowledged was how he had mastered the balance of humility and confidence at a very young age. Academic confidence, at least. His life goal is to earn a PhD in physics and study physics in Germany. But with everyone so focused on his math and science skills, I wonder if he even knew about his other amazing talents. Aside from being articulate, observant, and really good and making cause-and-effect connections in life and literature, Jacob was exceptionally skilled at taking initiative far beyond the level of a typical 6th grader. For example, he saved up enough of his own money to purchase an iPad, and when he realized that a laptop computer would actually serve him better, he organized the sale of the iPad and used the money to buy himself a laptop, which he regularly used in class. Remember, 6th grade.
But however smart he was, he was remarkably humble about it. He knew people accepted him as smart, and he was gracious enough to never brag about it, but he had his struggles and imperfections as well. I sometimes wondered if he felt pressure to live up to a certain expectation of intelligence. He was still young enough that he hadn’t hit puberty yet, so sometimes his immaturity showed through as emotional insecurity. He was sensitive to criticism, though never disrespectful, and whenever he encountered an activity that he wasn’t naturally good at, it could turn into a real emotional struggle. I wish I could see what adolescence does for him. I wish I could see what happens as he hones his interests and abilities into what he wants. I hope he finds what he wants, and not just what others expect.
I think at the heart of it, Jacob was looking for someone to look past his academic abilities and affirm him as an individual. Unlike his other teachers, I hadn’t watched him grow up. I didn’t know all his accomplishments from previous years or the academic expectation that was placed on him when I met him. I could form a fresh opinion of him based simply on what was in front of me. Plus, I was his English teacher – not math or science. I was in a unique position to come in as someone completely new and validate him as a person outside of preset expectation. The result was that he became really attached to me during my one year as his teacher. When he found out I wasn’t coming back, Jacob took it hard. He never said anything about it, but I could see in his eyes that he was mentally trying to process it. Whenever the subject came up, he would fall silent, look at the floor, and avoid eye contact with me. And then he did something that completely blew me away.
He never took credit, and I still don’t know for absolute certain that it was his idea, but from what I know of the individuals involved, I’m convinced Jacob was a driving force in the project. One day, near the end of my time at the school, several students from Jacob’s class presented me with a gift. A group of six 5th and 6th graders had combined their money and purchased me a nook Simple Touch and case to go with it. Now, even aside from the sheer cost, this was an incredible gift. First, they had given me the right expensive gift. I’d been pining after the nook Simple Touch ever since it came out, but that’s not exactly something you announce to a class of 5th and 6th graders. Second, the only adult involvement in this whole project was the parent that drove to Barnes&Noble. Everything else – from the idea, to getting others involved, to collecting the money, to the purchase and the wrapping the gift was completely student driven and student accomplished.
Six names were on the card, and they all took equal credit. And while the other students would bring it up from time to time (asking how I liked the nook, if I used it, etc.) Jacob never said a word about it. Ever. His name was on the card, and he watched me intently as I opened it, but that was it. Just like he never talked about me leaving, he always got very quiet when the people talked about the nook. But even so, this has Jacob’s handwriting all over it. He is observant enough to pick up on the fact that I wanted that particular piece of technology, and he had already proven that he has the skills to organize a big purchase like that. I may be wrong, but I think it was his idea, though he brought in others to make it happen.
My last day was heartbreaking. Other students waved goodbye or said a simple thank you, but for a handful, the parting was much more difficult, and Jacob broke my heart. At first he just hovered on the outside edges while the others said goodbye, not wanting to look at me but not wanting to let me out of his sight, either. And then he came in for the hug, and I felt him sob. I sat down on a bench as he clung to me, and we just sat there, with my arms around him and one other student, and we cried. When I finally left, he and a small group of students walked me out to my car and watched me drive away.
I plan on googling his name in 10 years to see what he becomes – if he actually studies physics in Germany, or if he discovers some of his other inherent talents and pursues them instead. I worry about him in the meantime, though. He’s capable of so much, but I worry that people won’t take the time to understand him, what really makes him talented and unique. Because there are a lot of people that are good at math and science, but Jacob is so much more than that. I hope he finds others that understand him. I hope he explores his strengths, and not just specific subjects. I hope his teachers aren’t scolding him for staring out the window.