I was recently asked which of my former students most inspired me. I have literally thousands to draw from for both good and heart breaking reasons. One of the kids who has inspired me the most is now dead. The other young man who I draw inspiration from actually tried to kill me.
Michael Cole. Charming, bright, hilarious, and witty. I had a monthly lecture for him about coming to school consistently. When he and other students met academic challenges, we’d have Tecmo Bowl video game binges.
I promised him that if he could be a consistent scholar, I’d take him and a few other students who were on “motivational contracts” to Pittsburgh to meet some friends like “Big Play” Willie Clay, who were NFL players . They earned it, so we headed to Pittsburgh so they could attend Will’s football camp. Cole was a gifted athlete and impressed folks there. At the basketball all-star game the night before, he had the typical nerve to challenge Jerome “The Bus” Bettis to a game of pickup basketball. Jerome Bettis played against Cole for 20 minutes, cracking up at the irreverent 8th grader’s incessant trash talking.
I have tons of students that i draw inspiration from
I couldn’t wait to see what Cole became. He had such boldness, intelligence, and a cool confidence I never could muster. But, Cole was murdered while he was in high school. He was my first murdered student. I still grieve him. And, there would be more.
I tried to build a forbidding wall around my emotional attachments, but new students removed those bricks. One by one.
There were many others; students who defied all types of odds to show they were experts of every type of grit imaginable. They encountered, survived, and defied things that would break the will of many men and women.
There were the Iraqi refugees who battled all types of challenges; displacement, murdered relatives, utter shock, adjusting to life in 2 different refugee camps in two different countries before making their way to the new and unfamiliar challenge of being immigrant Muslims learning English in west Philly.
There’s the student who scored a 5 on five different AP exams. We didn’t even offer one of the courses. He taught himself. He’s studying at Oxford this year.
There are the recent alumni who started a non-profit to tutor younger students at their alma mater.
As I said, there are plenty of students for me to draw inspiration from.
Some of my inspiration comes from the young man who tried to kill me
But, the youth who inspires my life the most, on a daily basis, is the one who attempted to take my life. Despite always having a deep sense of commitment to social justice issues, this young man likely had the largest influence on why I eventually chose to be a teacher.
As an educator, when I think of being shot by this youth a couple of weeks after my 21st birthday, I see an angry kid from southwest Philly.
I see a student who may have had all types of challenges and hardships, a quick temper, and far too easy access to guns.
But, I also see a student who attended a struggling school. A student who struggled to find support amidst all the challenges he faced. I see a student who experienced what it was like to have adults give up on him early. Often. Consistently.
I was blessed with a network that helped me overcome my wounds, but I often think of what internal wounds did my assailant suffer from. What untold trauma was he battling? Instead of only wondering what was the matter with him, I often wonder what happened to him.
There are plenty of students who face similar circumstances. And, we know, that even the most struggling students have a better chance of navigating their situations with mentorship, support, listening ears, high and consistent expectations, and engaging school communities.
There are myriad reasons for us to do this work. Inspiration is all around. Embrace it.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.