keep the blood in your head, and keep your feet on the ground

member of society…

Posted on October 5, 2018

earlier this week, a student of mine asked me to fix her phone screen, but the mission was a failure.

i suggested she take it to the store because it was still under warranty. a couple of days later, i asked her what the status of her phone was.

“i’m so sad,” she said, streaking her finger down her face simulating a tear drop. her mother wouldn’t take her to the store until the weekend, and it was wednesday.

“but don’t you feel good not being tethered to it?” i asked, hoping there was a bright side to all of this. whenever i lose my phone or i’m out camping somewhere, the first day is always the hardest. but each day after gets much easier, and i actually start to feel more relaxed and less — as the kids say — triggered.

being away from the network feels like a vacation from work. keeping my opinions about other’s political posts to myself and staying current with the latest memes is hard work.

“well, it feels good and bad,” she replied. her eyes shifted right to left, avoiding eye contact. “like, i don’t contribute to society, you know? i’m useless.”

useless? how?

“what do you mean? you’re not useless.”

“i am, though. i’m not uploading pictures, i don’t have snapchat. i just sit in my room, and i don’t contribute anything.”

there’s a moment in dune, my favorite book, when paul atreides drinks the water of life and gains the power of prescience — the ability to see not only the future but the consequence of every action.

when my student explained to me what her smartphone meant to her, it was like i became woke — i had suddenly tapped into the consciousness of an entire generation.

i finally understood what it means to be a milennial.

back in the day when i was in high school, the adults barraged us with college talk. “go to college!”

“you must, you must, you must!”

to be an active and contributing member to society in those days, you needed a degree. anything else was failure. and as an asian-american, that pressure was increased ten-fold. it was common for korean parents to brag about their children at gatherings.

“my son is going to berkeley.”

“mine is going to westpoint.”

that’s probably why my parents stopped being social around my senior year. how could they bear the shame of telling their friends that their eldest son wasn’t even going to graduate?

i hope they don’t feel ashamed of me now, especially with how things turned out. their son became a teacher. the kid who dropped out of high school and college is now telling other kids what to do.

c’est la vie.

and the hardest thing about being a teacher in today’s high school is getting students motivated. when i talk about college, they don’t seem moved. when i warn my failing students about the perils of not graduating, they shrug their shoulders and walk away unphased.

the one thing they treasure — the one thing they’re passionate about? they’re always on their phones. always snapchatting, taking pictures, texting their friends to meet them at the bathroom.

it’s why i instituted a no-phone policy this year. a zero-tolerance no-phone policy.

i didn’t realize what i was taking away from them.

that’s because i got my first phone in college — a nokia that had one game, snake. it was used to call people. i don’t know why i got one. i never used it.

but cellphones have become something huge. they allow us to communicate in emergencies. they help us plan, socialize, and stay abreast of news.

and for kids of this generation, it’s a way to promote themselves. they contribute to society — globally — with selfies, memes, and tweets about how they feel in a pinpoint moment of time. they entertain, they teach, and they make themselves known.

most of my friends don’t post or share anything online. my facebook feed is the same 20 people. the majority of my friends work hard and put everything they have left into their families. i never felt like i was an outlier until now. i’m active on social media, but i always felt like i needed to be because i’m a tech-nerd.

maybe i was looking at it all wrong.

i share news, i post things that make me laugh, and i write about my life because — because i feel like i’m contributing.

i’ve told anyone, everyone who would listen that i don’t understand my kids — i don’t understand their entitlement, their brashness, their values. they only see what’s in front of them, and they miss the big picture. they put so much value in their feelings, and they count their worth in fortnite wins.

i just described myself.

we started a league…

Posted on October 3, 2018

about two years ago, i got back in the habit and started playing magic: the gathering again.

i stopped sometime in high school around the time fallen empires was released — some 20 years or more ago. my friends and i would save up our quarters and make weekend trips by bike and foot to the store where packs would sometimes go for a dollar a pack; a steal by today’s standards.

there were two stores at the opposite ends of a plaza.

star market was a grocery store where i picked up some of my first comics. they had a set of tall wood and glass cabinets near the front of the store on the south side, filled with expensive baseball cards, sports memorabilia, and one out-of-place box of revised boosters.

we had to ask for al every time we wanted something.

on the other side of the plaza, a few stores away, poor richard’s almanac. they sold office goods. they also sold random music cd’s and other knick-knacks.

but we just wanted magic.

i never pulled a shivan dragon or a vesuvan doppelganger. and i traded away all of my dual-lands without hesitation because i didn’t know any better.

what i did know — i was good enough to get second place time after time at the local private school. and i could never beat my brother in an ante game. if we weren’t gambling, it was a wreck fest. but as soon as we placed bets, the top card was always something i couldn’t stand to lose.

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since i got back into magic, i’ve thought about starting a magic club at school.

last year, a student walked in to my class during lunch, introduced himself, and asked if i would be an advisor for his board game club next year. at the time, my room was known as the chess room — a few times per week, students would come in and challenge me to a game.

i didn’t make any commitments, but i told him i was open to the idea. i know students can be fickle, and i’m not the type to make plans that far in advance. “come back next year and ask me again,” i told him.

he followed through. he’s a student of mine for computer science, and he created a club that meets on two days. on tuesdays, the kids hang out in room 4 to play board games. after school, they roleplay dungeons and dragons.

on wednesdays, they set up the tv in my room and play video games. it gets so loud, the rest of my students know to steer clear as soon as students start pulling controllers and consoles out of their backpacks.

i started to make plans to create an unofficial club for magic. the local gaming store, mythic games, supplied us with a box full of welcome decks. i bought sleeves and deck boxes from bcw. i created a slide presentation containing a broad overview, league rules, and an faq.

a handful of students came in and paid their $5 due. ms. brown, the co-advisor for the game club, came in and dropped off $10. “use the extra $5 for anyone who needs it,” she said.

the kids waited impatiently for the first official day of the unofficial magic league.

at lunch, they came in. i passed out score sheets. and that’s how the magic league at gonzales high school was born.

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the club has grown to 19 students with very little advertising, and we’re about three weeks in.

we started with less than 10, and the numbers swelled after i made bringing a friend into the league an achievement worth 20 points.

20 points gets you four commons or two uncommons. those are real rewards when you’re trying to create a vampire deck or you’re building green-blue merfolk.

in a way, i feel like a kid again. magic seems new, as if i’ve gone back into the past. usually, when i buy a pack, i head straight to the back three to see which rares and uncommons i get.

now, i’m seeing cards i’ve passed over in draft become real threats. i’m seeing the game from a new perspective where things like tapped dual-lands are critical. a 3/3 at three mana is a game-changer.

on the other hand, it makes me laugh when a player grabs a handful of cards from the box that only gain life.

though i try not to give my opinions of cards, i can’t help but say, “these cards are bad,” whenever i see them.

“but life! how can you beat me if i keep gaining life?!”

i haven’t gone into the prize box yet, but it’s only a matter of time before i’ll have to. they all started as beginners, but they’re gaining on me. out of 12 games, i’ve lost two. it’s a big deal for them.

“i beat jacob! i beat jacob!”

in a way, i’ve started to love losing.

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i posted my league guidelines on reddit and received great feedback. (thanks, reddit!)

i also got to read how others ran their club, which helped me set expectations.

i can say it’s been a success here, and i wanted to share what i created and learned.

here’s a link to my guidelines. feel free to use it for your own club.

also, head over to wizards of the coast to request a welcome kit and a club kit. that will net you some welcome decks, a couple of posters, a bag of spindown counters, two planeswalker decks, a deckbuilders toolkit, and a playmat for teaching. (thanks, wizards!)

if you’re a teacher or organizer, play with your club. i made myself, the co-advisor, and my teacher’s assistant bounties for weeks one and two.

on that note, make the game interactive. reward your players for playing, losing, and teaching others.

but don’t give away too many cards. make the players earn them. find that balance where the players who are good and participate are ahead of the curve, but they’re not so far out that the students who are busy with other extracurriculars don’t drop out.

magic league is best when players progress together at a good pace. don’t overwhelm them with deckbuilding, playing at a competitive rel, and game theory. ease them in and build good habits.

make it fun and have fun.

and maybe, like me, you’ll look up at the clock, see that you’ve been at school way past the bell, and shrug because you’ve got one more game to go.

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Posted on September 27, 2018

it’s hard being a teacher.

quitting is a constant and persistent thought in my mind. when i wake up, when i’m driving to school, when i pull out the keys to my classroom out of my pocket — i am in a binding state of distress.

as a friend and business associate once likened the way he lawyers, it’s gentle pressure relentlessly applied.

the constant and flummoxing pressure is the reason why i fill my off-hours with chores and mind-consuming hobbies. there is no such thing as relaxing. whether it’s competitive card games, buying and distributing goods, or obsessively rearranging my mess of an apartment — i live like a shark; the moment i stop swimming is the moment i start drowning.

because being a teacher is like being an escape artist. for six (contracted) hours a day, i am in a dangerous (for introverts) environment where i am tasked with engaging an unwilling audience. i am complerely vulnerable, hovering over a pool of piranhas, and the rope holding me is burning. i’ve just lost the key to my straitjacket, and i need a quick solution or i’m going to lose my life and the crowd.

i escape just in time. the bell rings, the lesson goes about as well as i planned, and about 75% of my students turn in their assignments where it needs to be turned in (digitally on google classroom).

half of them will receive passing grades. the rest will have either copied their work from another student or source, done the absolute bare minimum, or written down a bunch of silly nonsensical answers because they really didn’t get it and didn’t bother to ask any questions.

it’s frustrating having to hand out a grade a student deserves because most of my students — if they had only tried — would deserve so much better. but we teachers don’t, and shouldn’t, grade on potential. i agree with thomas edison that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and i make sure my students know it.

“this is a cte class. career. technical. education. you don’t get paid for the days you don’t work.”

in short, you will get graded on what you turn in, and i want to see some effort.

i give them plenty of time to complete assignments. the first major project for my computer science course is a game coded in scratch, and i schedule it for three weeks from concept to completion.

for those who don’t know, scratch is a coding program that, in its own words, “is a project of the lifelong kindergarten group at the mit media lab.”

you might think three weeks is a long time to code a game using code-blocks designed for kindergartners, but you should come try it — teaching it, i mean. when a student, two weeks in, asks you a day-one question, like: “how do i even start this thing?” you’ll understand why i have bald spots.

and i know what you’re thinking. two weeks in? that’s got to be a teacher problem. you must not have explained it right. you need to work one on one with some of these kids.

because all means all, right? as in, we give all kids the opportunity to succeed.

that student asking for help the few days before it’s due is the one i’ve been spending all my time on. that’s the student whose hand is always raised — the one i’m sitting next to and directing because they’re relying on me to guide them by hand. and each day, that project gets wiped, erased, forgotten because of a lost password, options blanked because of unverified email, or never completed due to a loss of attention or general dislike for me and the class.

that student will leave class to go to the bathroom for 45 minutes, get suspended, and come back a week after the assignment was due and ask for an extension.

this isn’t a post where i blame my students. these so-called bad students are some of my favorite people. sure, they frustrate me on a daily basis, but they’re the ones that visit me after they’ve graduated.

they’re the ones i remember most, and the ones who appreciate me the most. they come in, grown up and more mature. they shake my hand, look me in the eye, and they say, “thank you for failing me.”

wait. what?

a marine recruiter once gave a presentation in my class. he talked about how his whole life, teachers pushed him through school. he dared them to fail him, but they gave him just enough to graduate. until he joined the marines, he wasted his life wondering what went wrong.

“no one let me fail,” he said.

no one likes to fail. my life is filled with regrets. mistakes, ill-timed decisions, bad calls. if there’s one thing i am actually pretty good, it’s failing.

and there is no teacher like failure.

when a student thanks me for failing them, the moment is bittersweet. on the one hand, they’ve taken a painful experience and become much stronger.

but to me, i’m reminded of history. you can’t change the past, but the future always begs the question: what if?

when you’re responsible for a student’s immediate future, the prospect of college or even being able to suit up for friday night’s football game, giving them a bad grade will keep you up at night, deserved or not. supervillains only dream of this kind of power — the ability to not only affect someone’s life in the moment, but also for the foreseeable future. anyone with a conscience will tell you that college coursework, teacher workshops, and all those expensive professional development days do not prepare you for the guilt, the gnawing insecurity, and the indecision that comes with.

sometimes i spend an hour on grades, checking the computer’s math, hoping to squeeze something out to get a student a d-.

and while i keep a jar marked on my desk labeled “student tears” to scare my kids straight, i’ve struggled to keep my composure when a student actually came to me sobbing about their report card.

even though my gut tells me i’m right, that i am justified in following my guidelines to a strict t — i can’t help but waver.

as a teacher with a soft spot, you assign extra credit, you stay six hours after class ends to give that student a place to work, and you try your best to get that student to pass.

and sometimes, no matter how many times you go over the numbers, a student falls short. it’s usually a case of too little, too late. you give the student the grade they deserve because the world will be a much harsher judge than you will ever be.

if there’s anyway i can get myself to sleep at night, it’s by telling myself that i am in the business of correcting behavior. i am a student’s surrogate parent, best friend, and mortal enemy — and sometimes all three at once. and if need be, i have to tell a student that they’ve failed.

it’s part of the job, and it’s part of life. call it fighting for the integrity of the class. call it sticking to principles. call it whatever you want. but no one gets something for nothing. not in my class.

the past four years have been an incredible test of my character. i am definitely not the same person i was. i am still passionate, but detached. i am exacting, cold, and calculated when it comes to instruction. i relate to my students, but i maintain authority.

i am resolute even when i cause suffering.

and i think about quitting every day. ultimately, i make a very conscious decision to stay. i have to. never have i felt so fulfilled and rewarded. no other job has given me so much purpose even if that purpose is seldom realized in myself.

i put my students first even when they lose faith. they struggle, they fight, and they fall short.

and when they succeed, i give them all the credit.

now that i think about it, i’m not the escape artist. my kids are. everything they struggle with is the straitjacket. education is the key, and this turbulent time called adolescence is the water.

i am the audience. standing on my feet, screaming at the top of my lungs.

“you can do it. you have to.”


a response to: ‘No zero’ policy: Florida teacher says she was fired for defying school’s ‘no zero’ policy (USA TODAY)



we are all victims here

Posted on August 18, 2018

“you finally brought it!” i said, as joseph pulled out a case from his backpack. earlier in the week, he challenged me to a game of mario tennis.

he put the case on my desk and began unzipping it as two others walked over to see what was going on.

i reached over and grabbed my backpack. i pulled my nintendo switch out and handed it to marcos.

“let’s play!” joseph shouted.

“can’t,” i said, turning my chair towards my computer screen. my computer science class had just finished its first exam, and i had grades to input. i didn’t see the harm in letting the students play a couple video games since it was club day, and i’m co-advisor of the gaming club. and since one of our first projects is a video game, i thought it was actually sort of appropriate.

at least they weren’t playing fortnite.

after a few games of mario tennis and a cup or two in mario kart, the students put the systems away. marcos walked to the door where he pushed the button on the hand sanitizer machine. 

for weeks, i had fielded questions about the hand sanitizer, not really paying attention to what students were saying. they kept asking me, is this hand sanitizer?

“of course it is.”  

i didn’t realize until today why they were asking. 

apparently, marcos was a little overzealous with the sanitizer, pumping out more than he should have. 

“is this soap?” he shouted, helplessly. he rubbed his hands furiously, the foam increasing. 

“what are you doing?”

i looked over my monitor, watching as he struggled to get rid of the liquid.

“keep rubbing,” i told him, “it should eventually go away.”

“it’s getting worse!” he rubbed his hands three times then stared at them before rubbing them three times again. this continued for about half a minute. 

whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. pause. whoosh-whoosh-whoosh.  

“it’s not going away! it’s getting worse!”

his hands began to dry causing the foam to turn into a slimy mess.

“someone must have put soap into the sanitizer,” i said, wondering why.

marcos looked at me with an expression that shouted victim.

“can i go to the bathroom to wash my hands?” he said, holding up his slick hands.

“do what you gotta do.”


Posted on June 6, 2018

i had to step outside of class for a brief moment after the bell rang and walked through a group of my students sitting outside and eating their brunch — i don’t allow food in the computer lab now that the new desktops have been received and installed.

one of the students i didn’t recognize, but it’s the end of the year and i didn’t need to know whose class the student was missing, why they were out, or whether they even had permission. things get so lax after grades are turned in and right before the seniors disappear from campus and go into the stadium to practice walking for graduation.

with a glance, i counted five. they stood around a tight circle near one of the supports.

i stepped onto the grass past the concrete walkway. behind me, a sharp gasp, a familiar one coming from one of my senior girls whose over-the-top expressions and open-mouthed grimaces would stop me in the middle of my lectures.

everything surprised her, whether i was explaining what i thought was a simple computer science concept or asking students to put everything away for a test i had announced day in and day out for the past week.

the way her jaw would drop and remain open while her eyes would squint and pull down her eyebrows before her shoulders, shrugging, lifted her arms and then her palms into the air similar to that classic “what the hell are you talking about?” meme featuring jackie chan that’s become so popular everywhere.

“jacob! what do you mean?” she would shout in a way that would start off with a shriek and ended in a whisper.

if i acknowledged her at all — sometimes directly by long stare or through a micro-expressive grimace, she would tilt her head and stare at me with eyes filled with confusion and innocent horror.

she reminded me of a precocious child. on occasion when i had to send out the seniors to a meeting, i would stop her right as she reached the door.

“hey! where are you going?”

“i’m a senior, jacob!”

as i stood onto the grass and heard her gasp, i responded loudly enough so she could hear me as i walked away.

“don’t act like you’re surprised.”

she giggled. “you know me so well.”

“if i don’t pass your class, i won’t graduate,” he told me, standing still as a rod except for his hands which shook like tissue paper.

“then, give me a reason to raise your grade because you didn’t turn in anything for three weeks!” i jab my finger at the screen showing my online gradebook, “i see you’ve done work the two weeks before that, but — three weeks — three weeks of nothing!”

“let me tell you why,” he stammered, “can i please tell you why?”

we had this conversation every day that week, and i didn’t expect anything different. “i don’t care about any reasons that come from outside this class.”

“i’m not trying to make excuses –“

“does it have to do with why you can’t participate in class?” i interjected. “i am talking about what you do while you are here.”

“it has to do with why i can’t function in class.”

“fine, go ahead.” i settled into my chair.

“my mom is terminal, and i’ve been very tired because i have to feed my siblings and make sure they’re taken care of. i don’t get to bed until very late. i try to write my scripts at home, but my internet isn’t very good. sometimes, i can’t finish them.”

“i understand that,” i responded, “but i don’t expect you or anyone else in this class to work on scripts at home. everything i have assigned this quarter — no, this year — was work designed to be completed in class.”

“in. class,” i said again, pointing at the floor as i said the words to punctuate my meaning.

the class was a broadcast class where students signed up for news stories, researched them, then wrote scripts to be read in front of a camera. every week, we created a 30-minute television show that appeared throughout the entire county, and it seemed like my students never failed until the last minute to work on scripts and queue themselves up for time in the studio.

i continued, “and i have to restate that your grades in all the other classes are a’s and b’s.”

“but –“

i had his grades pulled up on my computer. “you’re taking advanced math, a college-level english course, and several other high-level courses. you’re acing all of them except for mine. broadcast is the easiest class on your schedule because i don’t give you homework, i don’t assign a lot of essays, and i grade you on what you do in the hour you’re here. this is a career class where showing up on time and doing the job is main focus of this class.”

he took a deep breath, his eyes searching the air above me for an argument. “but i am very tired, and i can’t –“

“but you’re passing every other class! i need to know why you can’t put in the effort every morning to do what you have to do. it’s not hard, you’re one of my best writers, and you’ve done well every quarter except this one.”

“is there anything i can do to raise my grade?” he pleaded. his face turned a deep purple as his hands began to shake. his eyes were sunken but alert, and his hair was combed but shaggy.

i thought about doing what i had told myself i would not do — raise his grade out of pity. but i managed to put my foot down. we would see what would happen if an unstoppable force met the immovable object.

“the quarter is over,” i said with resolve, “there’s nothing left to assign.”

his body began to shake visibly, and he took short gasps of air.  i maintained my adamant composure, but my insides screamed, “mercy!”

he didn’t move from his position, but i came up with an idea. “go to the counselor. tell them to drop you. if they won’t do it, i will talk to them.”

“jacob. why are you always acting?”

acting. if only they knew. teaching was never my first choice as a profession. growing up, i had heard that those who do, do. those who can’t, teach. if teaching was ever in my future, it would only happen after years of working in a successful career. i would, and only could, teach from example and experience.

but i have come to a fuller understanding that a man may make his plans, but God will establish his steps.

after a few years working as a freelance photographery, an opportunity came up to teach at a regional occupation program. i became a part-time cte (career technical education) instructor. when my director saw that i had worked at a computer repair shop, she asked me to take on computer science courses.

now, i’m a teacher with a lot of hobbies. and i had a lot of students who brought the fight to me every single day.

“get to work!” i said, angrily at the student.

“i always do work.”

“then, let me rephrase — go do some work that’s actually good.” it sounded harsh then, and it sounds harsh now. but i had fought in many battles with this particular student who made it his mission to work off the grid. he never signed up for the important headlines. instead, he would show up on the due date with a set of videos no one asked for, and i thought no one wanted.

“what’s this?” i would ask.

“a review on a rap album.”

“who’s the rapper?” when he named some obscure rapper i would query the class, “has anyone ever heard of this guy? anyone? no one?”

he would hover until i dismissed him. “fine. i will accept it.”

over the course of the year, we would constantly butt heads. our exchanges were always the most bitter, the most loaded.

“you’re a snake, jacob,” he once told me.

i answered every challenge with a quick reaction that tested his motivations, his statements, his facts. “tell me what i did. what did i do, huh?”

“you gave the other student a camera, but you said no to me.”

“that’s because he was going to film something for the class. you, on the other hand, were going to film something for your own personal use. i would rather you get your work done and not screw around working on personal projects you don’t turn in.”

“that’s messed up,” he said, walking away.

i always had to have the last say, “just do what i tell you, and there’d be no problems!”

he used to walk into my class during other periods. for a few weeks, i only saw him in first period, and he stayed a considerable distance away from desk.

one day, while a group of students and i were talking, he joined us. while we bantered and discussed topics that had nothing to do with the tasks at hand, he posed a question that caught me off guard.

“why are you always so hard on me?”

i didn’t respond right away as several conversations were going on at the same time. when the mood shifted, most of the students left to return to their desks. as he turned to follow them, i stopped him.

“you know why i’m so hard on you?” i said, “it’s because you’re all talk.”

“what do you mean?” he asked, elongating the end of his sentence.

“i still remember what you said to me when i first met you. you said, ‘whatever you want, let me know. i’m your guy.'”

“i remember that,” he said, “and i do work every week. i do more work than everyone else in this class.”

“but it isn’t good work. you talk a big game, but you have improved the least. you do the bare minimum, you skate by, and you weasel your way out of doing actual work.”

“you’re acting.”

“no. i’m trying to teach you something. when you go to college, you’re going to have professors who don’t care about you because they have a thousand students to worry about. you’re going to be a number, a student competing with thousands of others who are more competitive, better-abled, cutthroat, and coming in with a higher privilege. they’re going to destroy you unless you open your eyes.”

he stopped for a moment. i could tell he was absorbing the words, though his facial expression was defiant and hard.

i continued, “you think this is it. you think this small little world is everything. but it’s not — there’s a huge world out there, and you are insignificant. you’re not special — not to them — because you haven’t done anything. you’re just another person with a sense of entitlement, and you have to prove you deserve to be there. it’s not about what you say. it’s about what you do.”

we stared at each other for a long second.

“i get what you’re saying,” he said.

“do you? or are you just telling me what you think i want to hear? i need you to understand this — talk is cheap. it is so very, very cheap.”

“i get it.”

“i wouldn’t say this if i didn’t care,” i told him, “i have to toughen you up because i am invested in you. i cannot let you fail.”

“i get it,” he said again.

“are you going to miss us seniors?”

“yes,” i lied. well, it was a half-lie. some i would miss — those who shared their lives with me past the professional courtesies or discourtesies present in any client-employee situation. all of my students are my clients — i am here to serve them. some treat me as an adult, an authority figure, a voice to be ignored.

to others, i’m a friend, an advisor, a brick wall of truth to bounce ideas off of.

“it’s going to be weird not seeing some of you around all of the time,” i said.

“are you worried? like, worried about our futures?” another student chimed in.

“for the most part no. but i want you all to succeed. i don’t want to hear that bad things have happened to you, or that you’ve failed out of school.”

“we’ll be fine,” the first student said, “we’ll try not to get into too much trouble.”

“can you sign my yearbook?”

it was the student whose mother was terminal.

“uh, yeah, sure,” i stuttered. “how’s your mother now?” i had heard she was quickly fading. the counselors dropped him from my class, and not a single day went by that i didn’t reconsider my decision to not raise his grade.

“she’s,” he paused, searching for the words before his lips turned into a smile, “well, she’s, she’s doing much better now.”

“that’s good,” i replied, “i’m glad to hear that.”

he gave me his yearbook, and i picked up a pen from my desk. “thanks,” he said, “thanks for signing my yearbook.”

i opened to a page partly filled, and my eyes caught part of an entry that said, “you are such a cool guy!”

as my eyes turned to a blank section, those words filled the space between my ears. i knew very little of this student outside of the past month. he was a hard worker when he put in effort, and he always said very little to me or anyone else in the class. if situations were different, would i have been able to comment on something more personal? would i have known more, and would that have affected my decision?

i started to write something, but the words escaped me. i considered writing the usual yearbook message — “have a good summer. see you (not) next year!”

what could i possibly say after all that went down? the truth? if i could, i would have written an apology, something that explained my rationale. i wanted to tell him that i was sorry his mother wasn’t in better shape, and that i had to maintain the rigor, structure, and composition of the course — that i couldn’t make exceptions to the rule and pass someone if they didn’t do the work.

i wanted to tell him that life throws curveballs and sliders, and sometimes it will lob an underhanded throw that ends up being a glass ball that just shatters in your face and leaves you scarred.

i wanted to tell him that it wasn’t my fault, but all i could write was a short paragraph that told him to be positive, stay strong, and recognize his potential. it was diplomatic — something in between what i wanted to write and what i could.

when i was finished, i capped my pen, placed a small sheet over the page so the ink wouldn’t smear, and snapped the book closed.

as i handed it to him, he smiled. “thanks,” he said.

“thank you,” i said.

before he walked out the door, possibly for the last time ever, he stopped and waved. “i’m going to college and majoring in media,” he told me.

i smiled back at him. “don’t forget about us here,” i said.

he lifted his hand again and replied, “i won’t.”