About a year ago, I was walking through a rush hour crowd of office workers and tourists in Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan when a voice called out to me, “Mr. P. Mr. P!” A young man approached me, carrying a hard hat and grinning. “Do you remember me?” he asked. I did. Vividly. It had been at least ten years since I’d seen him, but I greeted Henry, my former fifth grade student, by name.

I’d lost touch with Henry, whom, like many of my former students at P.S. 277 in the South Bronx, I follow on Facebook. A few years prior he’d moved to South Carolina, then went quiet. But here he was back in New York, working as an asbestos abatement supervisor on a construction site. We chatted for a few moments, promised to keep in touch, and said our goodbyes. I was pleased to see him doing so well, and truthfully, surprised. If you’d asked me to predict his future when he was in my class, I’d have been less than sanguine. Henry was an indifferent student and a bit of a troublemaker who spent far too many lunch detentions in my classroom. Sometimes we would play chess. My fondest memory of Henry was the day he finally beat me.

By every common metric, my old school was not very good. It was literally the lowest scoring elementary school in New York City’s worst performing community school district. But it was not some blackboard jungle hellhole of media caricature. The teachers were mostly caring and empathetic, sometimes to a fault. The principal who hired me was a middle-aged Jewish woman who spoke fluent Spanish and knew every child and parent by name. She was as much the school’s mayor as its instructional leader. Every child could recite from memory her list of school rules, which were painted on the playground wall: Job One was “Keep Everyone Safe”; the second was “Get a good education.” The third rule reminded everyone that there were “three magic words” at our school—“I need help!”—that a child could say at any time, which were promised to command immediate adult attention and bring all other activities to a halt. For years, I was irritated by what I felt was a poorly ordered set of priorities that placed education second. But now that most of my former students are in their twenties, my views have become a bit more nuanced as I’ve watched so many of them find their way in the world, particularly those, like Henry, who weren’t stellar students. Joshua joined the Marines. Cristian is a police officer. Eric is a plumber. Demin is a social worker. Another student contacted me not long ago to ask me for a reference for an internship; he’s studying accounting at a local college. One of my most challenging students, a self-proclaimed “wild child,” somewhere along the line righted the ship, graduated high school, and went on to college. When I spoke to her last, she was pursuing a master’s degree in finance.

I don’t wish to leave the impression that all of my former students have found their way. I know of at least one who is in prison. Another, a lovely and gregarious young lady, a golden girl with all the potential in the world, broke my heart when she got pregnant and dropped out of school at fifteen. A year before I was reunited with Henry, I had another “Mr. P!” encounter on the streets of Harlem. A deeply troubled student whom I poured more of myself into than any other, before or since, was calling out to me, pushing a stroller with an infant inside and a toddler in tow—two of her four children. She was unmarried and on public assistance at age twenty-two, and never made it past tenth grade. For every one of my former students who is working, in college, or otherwise striving, there is another who had her education derailed by teenage pregnancy, or who still hasn’t visibly gained traction. The ones I worry about most are those who have just dropped out of sight.

I don’t know what lesson to draw from any of this, except that our students surprise us, both for good and for ill. But over the years and in the main, there have been far more pleasant surprises than I expected among my former students. I still want schools where “get a good education” is Job One, not an afterthought. But I am no longer as quick to assume that the indifferent students, the low-achievers, the unruly and poorly behaved, are headed for a bad end. Somewhere along the line, something went right for far more of them than I would have wagered. This has made me both curious and humble about the character-forming institutions, relationships, and moments in a child’s life—at home, in school, or in other settings—that set some on paths of education, employment, or other opportunity; and others to reject it, either knowingly or through neglect, indifference, or inertia.

All of this is a lengthy preamble to the simple and only thing I think I’ve learned about character education, which is James Baldwin’s sage observation that “children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” As a teacher, I had a significant number of students who were not very good at listening to adults, or at least not to me. But thankfully, there were a critical mass of adults in their lives of whom they thought highly enough to emulate.

And maybe—just maybe—my old principal’s priorities weren’t as misplaced as I thought.

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education. After twenty years in…

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