*Names have been changed.
As much as Jacob tugged on my heartstrings, I really should have written about Landon first, because Landon was the embodiment of everything I’ve been saying over the past few months. In some ways, he was the first indication of the direction my career would ultimately take. You see, Landon was my first breakthrough, my first victory in the world of teen strengths.
I met Landon when I was a fresh-out-of-college newbie teacher, and he was a senior in my British Literature class. On the surface, Landon was your average “nice guy.” He was a lineman on the football team, a solid B student, and had a wonderful core group of friends. He’d mastered the world of high school pretty well without necessarily becoming the Big Man on Campus (which is perfectly fine, in my book). He and I got along well. He was respectful, and I never had to discipline him in class. He was a hard worker, and I celebrated his excitement when he pulled his grade up to an A-.
Then he asked for my help on his college application essay. It’s a common request for an English teacher, and I’ve grown leaps and bounds in how I teach the college app essay now, but back then I didn’t know that much. For most students I would just proofread for fluency and grammar and hand it back, but Landon made it clear from the start that he wanted more help. He wasn’t naturally strong in English, and he really wanted the essay to be good. So he spent hours working on it after school, first in the library drawing up a draft, and then in my classroom, discussing his work paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, identifying all he could do to improve the paper. I knew that he was a hard worker and that he wanted to succeed, so his dedication to the paper itself didn’t really surprise me. However, the content left me speechless. I’m really glad he wasn’t around the first time I read his rough draft, because I’m pretty sure my jaw was literally hanging open as I read his story.
A college application essay is supposed to reveal individuality, setting the writer apart from from every other applicant. Transcripts show grades, and fill-in-the-box forms show extracurricular involvement, but the essay shows the personality of the individual. As such, they often become highly personal pieces of writing. Students tell their life stories, share their struggles and triumphs, and what they think defines them. I’ve now read countless application essays, and I’m still blown away by what these kids experience and how they write about it. I should be “used” to it, but I’m not. Landon was my first clue that these essays have the potential to be incredible. Landon’s essay showed me that teens are often far more remarkable people than what we see sitting in the classroom.
Even with the name change, I don’t feel comfortable sharing the details of Landon’s story. He shared it with me in confidence, saying that most of his friends didn’t know. All I’ll say is that Landon wanted his essay to explain his transcripts. He had received poor grades early in high school, and he had been working exceptionally hard to make up for them. Without making excuses, the essay explained the heart-breaking situation that led to the poor grades. Then he told an amazing story of dedication and maturity in the years that followed. He’d had to grow up fast, and at 18 he was handling more life responsibility than I was at 23. In just a few paragraphs, he went from being a nice, polite, hard-working kid in my Brit Lit class to one of the most incredible people I knew.
I think what impressed me the most was that he didn’t ask to be recognized. He didn’t ask for pity for the tragedy, and he didn’t ask to be rewarded for stepping up and filling what was probably a thankless role of responsibility. As he confided in me about his experiences, he didn’t complain once. He didn’t want his peers to know, he said, mostly because they wouldn’t understand. He wanted better for his life, so he worked for better. He understood that he couldn’t expect life to be handed to him on a silver platter. Despite all this, you wouldn’t know the cares of the world rested on his shoulders when you saw him in class. He laughed with his friends while he took notes and did the work. He talked about the girl he liked when he thought I wasn’t listening. He was the perfect image of a nice, normal teenage boy. But knowing his story made it so much more exciting when he came to my classroom door to announce that he’d not only been accepted into college – his essay had earned him a scholarship.
I don’t know what happened after that. As is so often the case for teachers, we pour ourselves into our students and celebrate their successes as our own… and then they leave. If we’re lucky, someday a few might come back to us and tell us what happened. But we don’t get to pick and choose who’s stories we learn. Landon’s class graduated and I moved away. If he has ever visited the high school, I wasn’t there for him to stop in and say “hi” to me, anyway. All I know is that his future was bright and hopeful when I last saw him, three years ago. I hope his hard work has been rewarded.