The Lessons I Learned at Alternative School

For ten months, I’ve chanted it every day with my kids at alternative school, our mantra: “This is my life.  This is my story. I will love it or regret it based on my daily choices.”  The first recitation alone didn’t change me, but repetition worked it into my DNA. Our choices, love or regret them, write our stories.

Could all our pensive meanderings for how to live a better life really boil down to something so simple?

My choices write my story — past, present, future.  I can love or regret past choices, and they find their permanent places in my prior plot development.  Only, fortunately for us, we’re not short stories.  There’s not one climactic moment; our turning points are limitless, a sea of times we’ll wonder what comes next. 

This is my last week as a teacher, and it’s a climax, not a resolution.  I can’t wait to find out what happens next in the story my choices are writing today.  Let’s face it.  Spending a year in alternative school changed my life as much as it did the students in crises who were entrusted to me there. 

This blog could have easily been entitled “Why Mr. Adams Had to Be My Principal for Just One Year.” 

Last year around this time, my greatest advocate for leaving my cherished gifted center post was my former assistant principal, Dr. Holloman, also my best job reference.  I wanted to move to Greenville for a season to be near my oldest brother’s family and step out of my comfort zone, personally and professionally.  I’d interviewed with James Adams, Director of Project Go, on the phone. 

I’d told Dr. Holloman about the phone call and the position.  As I understood it, Project Go was an alternative school out in the country west of Greenville where they sent 6-12 graders as a final intervention before expulsion.  Mr. Adams called it a restorative program. It turns out I was in need of a restorative program myself. 

Dr. Holloman assured me he’d sung my praises to Mr. Adams, but I wasn’t sure that I should take the post.  They’d lost five English teachers in five years.  I’d be teaching sixth through eighth grades together and nine through twelfth grades together, an impossible range of readiness.  New kids would enter the program each week, and others could graduate the program each week.  It was a revolving door of differentiation. 

But Dr. Holloman reminded me why this job was the perfect fit: Project Go was about relationships, first, before everything else.  Balancing growing gifted writers, producing the yearbook, publishing the newspaper, and managing the school website left little juice for prioritizing relationships.  It excited me to dive into the deepest post-pandemic need pool.

At every juncture, I was waiting.  Waiting for the background check to clear, to resign my current post, to get my verbal contract offer in writing.  But in all that waiting, Mr. Adams’ voice was in my head.  I’d come to learn he doesn’t speak words of empty praise.  When he said he believed that I was the right person for their team, he meant it. 

And I believe that I had to leave the comfort of Hampton Roads to understand the power of relationships.  Packing up my house and classroom and saying goodbye to family and friends, I didn’t know what the next chapter would look like, but in a sense, I trusted Mr. Adams to lead me.  His vision for Project Go included his faculty and his students alike. He believed in me.

In my year at Project Go, I’ve learned to take responsibility for my choices.  It’s at the heart of our building model.  At the beginning of the year, when we chanted our motto, my mind would trigger a replay of all the choices I regretted.  I’d focus on being single, on not having kids, on the things I might never check off a bucket list. 

After a few months, I focused on the “my” in the mantra.  My life, my story, my choices.  I began to consider myself and my students as character sketches, not pictures, but the details we choose to define ourselves by.  We each have our backstory with traumas or hardships, strengths and weaknesses, triggers and dreams.  Without noticing, I’d come to own the regrettable choices in my past.

I greeted every student every morning, almost without fail, by name and with a fist bump (some kids swore they couldn’t start the day without it).  When they didn’t meet my eyes, I pressed a little.  I made a shirt with the slogan, “Ms. Palma believes in you.  Believe in you, too!”  I made it my evaluation goal that my students would perform well academically because of the relational support I provided. 

I spent the year making character sketches of each new student, updating them daily.  At first, I used printed rosters with rows beside each name where I’d jot down relevant details.  Her sister’s baby kept her up all night.  His mom’s in the hospital.  His ankle monitor won’t charge.  Eventually, my brain made space for my heart’s purpose, and I could see the plotlines growing as my students collected more choices, ones to love and regret. 

Why did kids return my fist bump, make eye contact, and share about their struggles in and out of the building?  Because I intentionally subjected myself to being a character sketch for them, too.  It’s better to assume that normal is being burdened and not carefree.  I told them about my problems, and more importantly, how I was facing them. Inserted into lessons, in conversations in the hallway or on the swings, or in a group in the cafeteria, I modelled responding to life’s daily upsets. 

You could ask any of my students what my biggest regret is, and they’d be able to tell you it’s not having kids of my own.  They’d tell you matter-of-factly, not in pity, because owning our regrets highlights the choices that we made getting here and outlines the daily choices we can make to get somewhere else. 

I wound up developing my own pencil-paper curriculum, with no technology in the students’ hands.  I taught today’s most challenging population for 90-minute blocks of bell-to-bell instruction without an electronic device in their hands.  In fact, often, there were books.  My behavior management was far from perfect, but Mr. Adams would agree that authentic relationships with my students was the backbone of classroom effectiveness. 

After six months living the Project Go mantra out, my focus turned to the “daily choices” part. I accepted the things I had no power to make daily choices to change, then focused on what I could do.  Soon after, Mr. Adams announced his promotion to implement Project Go’s strategy within the district schools, potentially to prevent students from ever ending up there.  He’d be leaving.  Would I stay?

And soon after that, the sudden passing of an old friend stirred me to action, reminding me that the writing dream was one I could make daily choices to attain.  I started stringing together some good daily choices of my own.  Since Josh’s death, I’ve written ten blog posts, published thirty poems including four new ones, and sold five stories to my publisher.

I met my evaluation goal.  Every student that made it through the program secured an English credit.  But that’s not the real success story. 

It’s the fact that I could tell my students I wasn’t coming back next year, and they’re more excited about my writing career than losing me.  One told me she’ll be the first in line for my book signing.  Another asked me to write his story, and I just might.  Turns out, they believed in me right back. 

Relationships go two ways.  Mr. Adams believed in me, and I believed in him. I was vulnerable with these kids, and they were, in turn, vulnerable with me.  I was their superior in the ways that mattered like enforcing the dress code and reminding about profanity, but as a human, I was their equal.  So, we saw growth together.

Climaxes work in ripple effect, and one turning point can shape another.  Perhaps the impact of a major life event can be personal growth and development that keeps you from regretting at all.  I don’t regret moving here, though I don’t see it as my forever home.  I had lessons to learn in this restorative program, and I’m more interested in new choices than old ones.

Just try it aloud for me, come on. 

This is my life.
This is my story.
I will love it or regret it
based on my daily choices.

Maybe you’ll focus in on regrets first, too, but keep reciting it.  Take ownership of the story until now so that you’re able to take responsibility for the more important choices, the ones you haven’t made yet.

I think living a better life for yourself really is that simple.  And, thanks to Mr. Adams, you don’t have to spend a year in alternative school to figure that out. 

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