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Learning at its Best

Big Picture Saved My Life. Really. (Guest Post by Student John Dubie)

Publishing this story on behalf of John Dubie, a senior in the Big Picture program in Burlington, VT. John is also a stand-up comedian (catch his act in various locales around Vermont) and an organizer for IDEA. This is his autobiography.

For as long as I can remember I was the kid in class who was never expected to succeed. Whatever the opposite of an honors student was, that was me. I was the Dishonor student throughout elementary, middle, and high school.

My earliest memory of this pattern was in second grade. The teacher would go through each assignment we had throughout the quarter (which then consisted of worksheets and word searches) and name the people who hadn’t turned one in in front of the class. I heard my name called for most of the assignments every time. Every time she would look at me like I was doing it to spite her. She was mad at me. Not doing my homework was ME hurting HER; as if my intention was to piss her off by not being able to focus on homework. Worse yet I believed that was true. That not doing homework was mean to the teachers.

I spent my K through eighth grade years at Mater Christi School, a private Catholic school. I’d wake up every morning and put that uniform on until I was more comfortable in that than any of my casual wear clothes. As my years in Mater Christi went on, teachers stopped looking at me like I was trying to hurt them. They started shrugging it off because not doing my homework and falling behind was just what I was expected to do. I got through classes with D’s and no one was surprised I wasn’t getting A’s.

Every parent teacher conference I went to the teachers would say, “You have a really bright son. I don’t know why he isn’t getting A’s.” I came to the conclusion that every teacher told every parent of an underachiever that line so the parent wouldn’t get mad at the teacher for not helping more, but at the student for not trying hard enough. I hated that line. I still do. I didn’t believe it was sincere any time I heard it. It took all the blame off the teacher and put all of it on me. It made me feel like an utter disappointment.

Being the younger brother of a very successful student didn’t help going through middle school. Teachers would introduce me as “Clarissa Dubie’s younger brother” and other teachers would say “Oh really?” with a look on their face that said “I wonder what happened.” Teachers didn’t seem to try to hide their feelings around children in my younger days. I think they thought kids that young were too stupid to understand or recognize them.

I was known for being a troublemaker at Mater Christi. A trouble maker as well as an underachiever is a bad combination to teachers. I don’t think I was a trouble maker. I would see kids doing something fun but against the rules, then I would do it one time, and I would get caught. I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

By the time eighth grade graduation came along, I’d heard several backhanded compliments and jokes about how surprising it was that I had graduated. At the ceremony I recall hearing an adult say “Thank God” as I walked up to get my certificate. I merely thought this was funny because throughout all the years I spent at Mater Christi one of the biggest things I got in trouble for was taking the Lord’s name in vain.

The summer between middle school and high school was not a turnaround point. I got involved with drugs and bad kids. I think the main reason for that was that I was under the assumption that I was a bad kid, and this is where I was supposed to be headed.

When I got to high school, I was a particularly snarky and jaded student. Every teacher I saw was an enemy and every classmate was a douche. I cut class and talked back to teachers. I was a bad kid. I was once again the Dishonor student.

Something I always chuckled to myself about was my intentions. I would start walking to my next class and a teacher or administrator who was told to keep an eye on me would tell me to go to my next class. Then to spite them I would decide not to. I had every intention of going, but an adult who assumed I didn’t would snap at me, so I wouldn’t. I really showed them.

Things went downhill by sophomore year. Not only did I skip classes but I skipped exams and class meetings. I was more involved with bad kids and drugs. By about halfway through the year I was a well-established bad kid. My classmates didn’t help. The whole “I don’t give a shit” attitude was cool, and I loved it. I was removed from my art class after expressing to my art teacher how worthless her profession was. I asked my Geometry teacher if there was any way I could mathematically pass her class. She didn’t know, so I did the math. There was not, and I decided to stop going.

No one was surprised I wasn’t succeeding, least of all myself. My sister was curing cancer or something and I was a Dishonor student. She was bragged about and I had excuses made for me. I don’t resent my family for that; it’s just the way it was.

Close to the end of the year I found myself in Tim Wile’s office. He was my guidance counselor. For some reason I never resented him like I did with all the other teachers and administrators and other faculty members that crossed my path. He seemed genuinely interested in helping me, not just resigned to the fact that I was a bad kid who wasn’t going anywhere.

Tim Wile told me about the Big Picture program. In my backpack I had the law and procedures on how to drop out of high school. I figured this was a last shot. If it didn’t work I was going to be a high school dropout just as everyone expected. I applied and got in. I think Tim put in a good word for me.

By this time in high school I had developed a persona. I was a rebel who didn’t give a shit. I cut class, I said and did whatever I wanted, and I was pretty clever too. Teachers hated me and my classmates thought it was cool. I had three summer school courses in the summer between sophomore year and my first year of Big Picture. I failed two of them. That was just who I was: a bad kid. A Dishonor student.

The first day of Big Picture, I walked into the room feeling something I hadn’t felt for a really long time. I was nervous for school. I sat down and looked around. There were several different types of individuals around me, all extreme. There were well dressed and put together girls, hip nonconformists, computer whizzes, musicians, and more, yet none of them fit any real stereotype. Instead they were all unique individuals. One of the things that struck me most was that tt didn’t feel like there were any cliques, just one group. It was nerve-racking and overwhelming. Where would I fit in? I remember thinking to myself “John, what the fuck did you get yourself into?”

The thing I admired about each of these kids was that they were all themselves. I found myself hating the bad kid stereotype I had conformed to. It wasn’t me. Sure I want to make people laugh. I want to be snarky. Hell I even want to skip school sometimes, but more than that I also want to be a good kid.

Starting the year, my advisor, Kerith, asked me what I was interested in. I said some bullshit professions that sound good like psychology and law enforcement. I really had no interest in either but I thought that’s what she wanted to hear. She saw through that in no time. She asked me what I thought I was good at, what I enjoyed, and what I was genuinely interested in. No teacher had asked me that before, especially when it was related to what I was going to be doing in school. I was overwhelmed. Confused, I stuck to my defenses and said psychology and law enforcement. She told me to really think again about what I was good at, what I enjoyed, and what I was genuinely interested in. I am good at getting reactions out of people, making people laugh, and speaking. I enjoy all of those, especially when it’s for large groups. From a very early age, I found stand-up comedy fascinating. It was that year I discovered, with a lot of help, what direction I wanted my life to go. I found that I wanted be a stand-up comedian.

I would love to be able to say that I became an exemplary student as soon as I got to Big Picture. Unfortunately I had some serious bad habits well-rooted into my education. Work completion and attendance remained terrible. Only one thing changed: I gave a shit. I hated the fact that I wasn’t succeeding. I wanted to look good in front of Big Picture. I wanted Kerith and my new classmates to be proud of me. I didn’t want them to think I was a bad kid.

Over the summer between my first and second years of Big Picture, drugs kept increasing as a problem, and I was sent to a mental hospital on suicide watch and diagnosed with depression and ADD. The one thing that I thought about most in my stay was Big Picture. I loved it, but hated myself for failing. I decided I needed something to do that would make people proud. Something I enjoyed doing. Most importantly I needed something that, by the end of the day I could pat myself on the back and say good job.

When school started again I grabbed every opportunity to speak publicly about my experience in education and to advocate for Big Picture. I wanted other students to know about how it changed my life, and I wanted to let teachers know how best to support their students. Being involved in school reform helped lessen my depression more than anything, and quickly became another passion of mine.

The one monster that kept lurking in my shadows was drugs. That year I got addicted to heroin. That kept hurting me and my efforts to not be a Dishonor student until eventually I left my house after a falling out with my parents and found myself homeless for a little over a week. Most nights I spent at friends’ houses, but there were a few I found myself on a bench near school.

Due to the bad habits I formed, I didn’t graduate with my class. I returned for another year as a senior. I see the grins teachers have when they see me. I can almost hear them say “I saw that coming.” I hear the jokes other students tell. Why shouldn’t it take me five years to finish high school? Some people do it in three years. Why can’t it be up to me when I’m ready to graduate? Why do people get to look down their noses at me because of the amount of time I spend in school? A few years ago I was ready to drop out of high school; now I am returning for a fifth year to pursue my education. That is something I can be proud of.

Big Picture got me through depression and heroin addiction. I am at home, working hard, and I have been substance free for months. I know that without the Program I would probably be dead. It is an environment that makes me feel safe, taught me how to be myself, what I wanted to do, and gave me a new family that I will cherish forever. There is no doubt in my mind that Big Picture saved my life.

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About nflanagan

Nancy Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She divides her time between wondering how things got so messed up and dreaming up ways to re-energize America's best idea--a free, high-quality education for every child.

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