Saturday, August 20, 2016


Imagine you are walking in a shady, wooded area where a small pond rests in the heart of the beauty which surrounds you. Imagine that you pick up a small pebble, one that appears insignificant to the landscape. Imagine gently tossing the small pebble into the water with very little effort, creating a circular collection of ripples that expands outward, brushing the edges of the pond near you. 

A couple of weeks ago someone threw a pebble into my pond.

I like social media because it affords me an opportunity to remain connected to people with whom I have crossed paths throughout my life: childhood friends, college cohorts, work colleagues, family, and, as a teacher, former students.

Mike's Memorabilia
About two or three weeks ago a former student posted this picture on my Facebook page. Mike had been going through a collection of old memorabilia from his past. Clearly one of my students. He found this piece of paper, a little "attendance award" I gave to students who had perfect attendance in my class. I recall there were special perks the students received besides the little paper certificate, but I am the one who received the perk rippling back to me. In his post Mike said my "class is just about the only thing (he) never missed a day of ever." He shared that to help me "prepare for (my) 25th year of teaching." Thank you, Mike.

Mike was one of my students in my first class at my first official teaching position at Ralph L. Fike High School in Wilson, North Carolina, over 25 years ago.  I immediately began to look through Mike's Facebook page to see what he had been doing all this time. What stood out is his young son who looks remarkably like the high school student I remember from over two decades ago. Nothing is better for a teacher than to see a former student happy and successful in life.

The ripple Mike created continued for the next few weeks, leading up to the outset of my 26th year of teaching at my alma mater Central Catholic High School. Something unexpectedly joyous happens to teachers as we continue into our twilight years, occasionally looking back at the ripples in the pond.

Sabrina is another former student from my days at Fike High School. I remember Sabrina being an incredible track athlete at Fike. I do not remember all of the accolades she achieved in high school, but there were enough accomplishments to garner her a track scholarship to the University of North Carolina. Sabrina was so much more than a track standout. She was an incredibly passionate, hard-working student with a desire to leave a positive impact on so many people. 

As a teacher we do not always know where our students will end up later in life. Sabrina and I have remained in contact ever since she called me five years ago to tell me she was going to be on the CBS reality show Survivor. Imagine the joy I had watching a former student on a nationally-televised program.
Sabrina is a motivational speaker, a professional photographer, a co-founder of WEEN (Women Empowerment in Entertainment Network), and is now creating a web-series called The Department of...Ed, based on her experiences as a teacher in an inner-city school in Brooklyn, New York. From time to time Sabrina also gives me some much-needed personal advice about life and social issues; she is one of those valuable "tell it to you straight" people everyone should have.

Sabrina at The Department of...Ed
So now Sabrina is creating her own ripples in the pond as she speaks to young people around the country, helps young women become empowered entrepreneurs like her, and pays tribute to teachers who can become disenchanted with the system, surviving the best that they can with humor and compassion. One day I hope that Sabrina will see those ripples returning back to her shore. If I am right, she probably already has.

The Department of...Ed.
One of the greatest challenges of being a teacher is that to do it well, you have to make that personal investment in students, to care about them beyond the content of the classroom while preparing them for their future with the content of your class. I make that investment the best that I can and hope that a connection is there. 

This connection is at the heart of joy when I see former students achieve their dreams. Like Pablo and Santiago, two Venezuelan brothers who became American citizens while they were in my class, with Pablo joining his family bakery in Brooklyn and Santiago beginning law school. Like Kate, teaching young children about eating well while on her own path of studying diet and nutrition. Like Hunter and Joey, two young men who took similar paths into the military academies of West Point and the Naval Academy. Like all of those students I greet as they walk into my classroom then a year later watch as they cross the graduation stage and into their futures. It is difficult to let go as a teacher once I have made that connection, so it is a powerful experience to quietly watch those ripples every couple of years, maybe five or ten years from now, or, for me, a quarter of a century later.

Pablo @  Everybody Eats, INC.
Joey inducted by his grandfather
Such is the life of a teacher. We do our best to gently toss those pebbles in the ponds that are our classrooms with the hope that we can create ripples or even waves in the lives of our students. We choose those pebbles carefully, praying to make a deeper impression that will move students in positive directions throughout their lives. If we are lucky, those students, by our example, will toss their own pebbles into the lives of others, leading to ripples throughout a much larger pond.

photo by Alyson Hurley (mother of a former student btw)

Please take a look at Sabrina's preview of her web-series The Department of...Ed.



  1. Oh Aj. You warm my heart with your words of compassion, kindness and in depth feelings. I love your blogs. They are very inspiring and you have touched so many lives. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Lynn, for your wonderful compliment.