His Name Is Zachary

by Dr. Christine A. Johnston

Several months ago, I blogged about Emily and the “Lost in School” phenomenon. The message was straightforward: Until we, as educators, make a human connection with the learner in our midst (child, young adult, or mature adult), we haven’t equipped them to learn. The post emphasized the importance of connecting with the learner by listening to the learner, talking to the learner about the learner’s interests, and affirming the learner as a person whose abilities consist of myriad possibilities. The caution was that too often as educators, we misperceive and misjudge the potential of the learner. Instead of seeing and fostering the learner’s possibilities and potential, we identify and focus on what we believe are the learner’s limits and impossibilities.

This message came back to me once again this past weekend as I worked with a cohort of faculty members from a prominent southern university who are seeking certification as Educational Specialists in the Let Me Learn Process. To a person, there was not one individual, even after having attained the highest level of academic and professional achievement, who did not bear classroom scars as a result of being misperceived, under-appreciated, or simply misunderstood during the course of his or her educational journey.

The point being made is that regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity, the learner suffers when the classroom fails to create an environment that promotes valuing and respecting the various learners within it—and the lifelong human connection such valuing and respect fosters.

Today this was driven home to me, when late in the afternoon, I answered the phone and heard the words, “Do you remember me, a voice from the past?” Ordinarily I become quite flustered when greeted in this manner, but the person on the phone, sensing my hesitation, filled in the missing information immediately: “It’s Zachary.”

“Zachary,” I thought. I only know one Zachary, and the last time I saw him he was eleven and facing a life with so many challenges I could not begin to enumerate them. “Zachary? Really?”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s me.” And then what ensued was a conversation of questions and responses. The usual, “How are you? Where are you? How did you find me?” Then the important questions, “How has life treated you? What are you doing now?” The answers were so gratifying to hear. “I work two jobs, fourteen hours a day. I’ve raised my two children, and it took two jobs to make that possible.” And I thought to myself, “Zachary, the school challenged, life challenged child who I knew so many years ago and spent time connecting to is now an adult who is not just surviving, but thriving.” He’s hard working and proud to be so. He has accepted responsibility and has been the stronger for it. He daily checks in with his mother, who is now 84. And the insight at this point in his life he shared about understanding the sacrifice his mother made to keep his siblings and the family life together was indeed heartwarming. But while the answers to my questions were so satisfying to hear, nothing compared to the amazing reason for call:

“I just wanted to tell you that I never forgot you and what you did for me.”

The human connection is a powerful connection. The last time I saw Zachary was 38 years ago when he was eleven. I now live over a thousand miles away from Zachary, but this afternoon, Zachary and I were once again connected by our shared memories, our shared hopes, and the human connection fostered so many years ago.