Did I Just Destroy This Kid’s Life?

I moved back in with my parents after graduating from college and took a job substitute teaching at the high school I had attended. In college, I had been introduced to radical politics and had read a book called The Teenage Liberation Handbook. It talks about how teenagers can quite school and create a life and education for themselves. I generally agreed with it, but it was more like a theoretical abstract idea – at that time I didn’t know any kids who left and I certainly wouldn’t have advocated it.

In my teaching career, for whatever reason, I always got along best with the kids who didn’t like school and during that year I got to know one kid in particular, although I don’t remember his name any more. He was all punked out – leather clothes, spiked mohawk, chains – but very nice and articulate and just didn’t like school.

We got to talking one day in a class I was covering and I mentioned this book, The Teenage Liberation Handbook, that I had read and he said he would be interested to take a look. I brought it in later that week and gave it to him in the hallway. Again, the idea of teens actually leaving school was totally abstract in my mind – of course no one would actually consider taking that step, they would be throwing their life away if they didn’t finish school, right?

Like 3 days later, he sees me in the hallway. He comes right up and says, “Thanks for the book Mr. Hammon (handing it back to me). I’m dropping out of school.” Big red sirens are going off in my head. You’re WHAT!!!? Holy shit! I’ve just destroyed this kid’s life. I didn’t want you to actually quit school, I just thought it was an interesting book.

There’s no nice and tidy end to this story. He walked away and I never saw him again. I don’t know if he left school and ended up in the gutter or if he made his own way in life and is now fabulously happy. I don’t know what his parents thought. I have no information.

Of course, I now counsel teenagers to leave school for a living. This incident was one of the sign posts on my road to leaving teaching. I had a successful school career (at that same high school where he quit) and never could have imagined having the interest or will to walk away from it all. I learned during my teaching career that school is fine for some (including me), but that it was not fine for lots of intelligent, great and unhappy kids. I don’t know what happened to my mohawked friend, but I do know from my work now that teens can leave school and make a life for themselves and that it turns out OK.