Zamir* was a 12th grade student, originally from Albania. He had come to New York with his older sister when he was in the 10th grade, and hadn’t seen his parents for almost 3 years. His sister did her best to support him, but didn’t seem prepared to manage a teenage boy. She also had her hands full with a toddler and work.
Zamir developed a habit of coming extremely late to school, if he came at all. My assistant principal Shira and I had a meeting with him. We tried the usual motivations: “What do you want to do after high school?” and “Think of going back to Albania and showing your parents your high school diploma.”
In the past, Zamir would respond, “Yeah,” or “OK,” but something was different this time. He spoke honestly: “Those things don’t motivate me,” he said. “Graduating, yes I want to graduate, but thinking of the diploma or college or my family, it doesn’t make me want to get out of bed and come to school on time.”
I had a feeling this might be true for many students—they weren’t motivated by a vague future.
“What would motivate you to come to school, right now?” we asked.
Zamir considered the question. “It would motivate me if someone was outside of my house in a car honking their horn in the morning, and I had to get up to meet them or they’d be late.”
We laughed, and so did he.
And we listened.
Not many of our students have cars, but we thought of one of Zamir’s friends, Elton. Elton actually had a passion for cars and wanted to train as a mechanic after graduating. Even more significant, Elton had struggled in the past with attendance like Zamir, but had made a major turnaround and was on a path to graduate in June.
We met with Elton, explaining the situation. “Elton, would you be wiling to drive Zamir to school everyday to support him in graduating on time?”
“Of course,” he responded, seeming both surprised and honored to be asked.
The next day, we saw both Zamir and Elton on time for school. Teachers were thrilled to see Zamir in their first period class. As time went on, there were days when Zamir didn’t keep his word, causing Elton to be late, or just come to school without him. Still the overall improvement was significant. Elton himself also walked a little taller, transforming from a regular student to a mature leader, partnering with us as a staff.
In June, Zamir and Elton took their exams. Zamir passed his science exam, making him eligible to graduate.
Elton passed one exam, but failed two. He would not graduate in June.
I found Elton sitting despondent in the auditorium, watching his friends rehearse for graduation. “I’m done with high school,” he said. “I don’t care anymore.” I did my best to communicate my belief in him, but I also knew he needed space and time to recover from the disappointment.
Zamir found me. “I’ll talk to Elton,” he said. “I’m going to make sure he goes to summer school.”
I was touched, and I believed him.
We didn’t start summer school for a few weeks. Elton went on a trip to visit relatives in another state, and when he arrived back at summer school, he seemed new and refreshed. He told me Zamir had encouraged him, and said, “You’d better graduate.” Elton came to summer school everyday, worked hard, and in August, passed both of his exams.
Zamir came to Elton’s graduation. I took a photo of them together, Elton looking regal in his cap and gown, Zamir with a baseball cap turned backwards, his arm slung around Elton’s shoulders, as happy for Elton has he had been for himself.
*The names of students have been changed.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman