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When a student gets an F in one of Adam Stumacher's classes, he takes it personally.
"What that means to me is I failed," he said.
Each time he fails a student, Stumacher also comes away with a lesson on how to do his job better. But one failure, and its lesson, from seven years ago stays with him.
Stumacher was teaching an English as a second language (ESL) course at Excel High School in South Boston. A freshman student walked into the classroom.
"The first thing he said to me was, 'Why the hell am I in this class? I already speak English,' " he recalled the student, nicknamed "Junior," saying. "Junior pretty much entered my classroom pissed off."
WBUR is only identifying the student by his nickname in order to protect his privacy. Junior has dyslexia, which made it difficult for him to read and write well enough to pass the state test to no longer be classified as an English language learner.
Junior's struggles with reading also impacted his behavior in class. Whenever Stumacher started a lesson that involved reading or writing, Junior would find a way to disrupt what was going on. Stumacher remembers he'd often stand up in the middle of class and recite the lyrics to his favorite hip-hop songs at full volume.
"He was just angry. I think he didn’t quite understand what or who he was angry at, but I was the closest figure of authority nearby."Adam Stumacher, former ESL teacher at Excel High School
Stumacher said he tried to offer Junior encouragement throughout the year, reminding him that he was among friends in class who wouldn't judge him if he struggled with reading. But nothing seemed to work.
"He was just angry," he said. "I think he didn’t quite understand what or who he was angry at, but I was the closest figure of authority nearby, so I was on the receiving end."
Near the end of the year, Stumacher finally had a breakthrough. He thought about all of the times Junior would stand up and sing in the middle of class and realized that music could be just the tool to help Junior engage with his class work. So, for one of the final class projects that year, he asked his students to analyze the lyrics to their favorite song.
Junior nailed the assignment.
He gave an oral presentation about Kendrick Lamar's song "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" that Stumacher describes as beautiful and incredibly perceptive. Junior told the class that he believed the song was written for and about families like his, that have been impacted by gun violence.
But Stumacher says watching the presentation was bittersweet. Because while Junior got an A on that project, it wasn't enough to keep him from failing the class. Even today, Stumacher still feels the failure personally, because he couldn't find a way to connect with Junior until the year was almost over.
But Junior didn't give up on him.
When Junior came back to school the next year, his attitude toward Stumacher shifted dramatically. He said hi to him in the halls. And, eventually, he began eating lunch in Stumacher's classroom to talk about music.
"We just kind of built this friendship," Stumacher said.
Despite that friendship, Stumacher was surprised when he saw Junior's name on his class roster again. This time, it was for Stumacher's creative writing class. It gave him pause at first. He said it was hard to forget how disruptive Junior was in his ESL class freshman year.
"I pulled him aside in the hallway and I was like 'Junior you know this class is all reading and writing. It's all that we do,' " Stumacher remembered saying. But Junior insisted that enrolled because he loved to write.
But this time around, Junior proved to be a different student. He sat in the front of the classroom and completed all of his assignments on time. He filled notebooks with poems and stories from his life. Junior even gave his classmates a hard time if they were being disrespectful to Stumacher.
"He had definitely matured over his four years of high school," said Stumacher. "I also think that, thanks to the hard work of his special education teachers, he now had some strategies to tackle text. So he could read, and he could set his thoughts down on paper."
Despite his success on the written assignments, Stumacher couldn't convince Junior to read his work in front of the class, which was a requirement for the course.
At the end of the year, Stumacher had his creative writing class revisit and perfect the assignment they were most proud of and compile them in a book. Junior chose an essay analyzing what it was like to lose his cousin, a mentor figure in his life, who was fatally shot.
When the work was done, Stumacher held a book release party in the school library where each student read the piece they contributed. He asked Junior if he was going to read his essay, but Junior wouldn't commit either way.
"Thanks to the hard work of his special education teachers, he now had some strategies to tackle text. So he could read, and he could set his thoughts down on paper."Adam Stumacher
"I saw Junior seated off to one side with his friends and he wouldn't even look at me," Stumacher recalled. "And I knew what that meant. And I knew what I had to do."
Stumacher went to the library sound system, which had been playing jazz as the audience arrived, and switched the music to a song he knew he could reach Junior with: "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" by Kendrick Lamar.
"As soon as he heard the beat drop, Junior looked up and met my gaze and gave me this slight nod," said Stumacher. "And that's when I knew he was ready to step up to the mic and tell his story."
It was an emotional moment for everyone in the audience, according to Stumacher.
Watching Junior's journey through high school made a lasting impact on Stumacher. He's grateful that Junior had enough faith in him to return to his classroom despite the rocky beginning they had in ESL class. But Stumacher said he still feels guilt on some level when he looks back.
"Here was a student that was taking a leap of faith and returning to my classroom, and here I was telling him, 'Are you sure you want to do this?'" he said. "And here I was assuming that he was going to cause a disruption."
Stumacher said this experience reminded him that as a teacher, he should never give up on a student.
"No matter what has happened in the past, let it be in the past," he said. "And persevere with the belief in their capability and in their brilliance in the now."
This segment aired on May 27, 2019.
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