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Dropping the Ball


Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT. My name is Glynn Washington, and today we're featuring stories from people who go for the big prize. And now we've saved you the very best seat in the house. We transport you to SNAP JUDGMENT Live! in San Francisco. My dear friend and favorite of this show, Ms. Joyce Lee.


JOYCE LEE: Avery is a tall, handsome, athletic, young black kid. He's going to go to the NBA, he's going to be a big star and he will be the first in his entire family to go to college. My only job, as an educator, is to get him there.

The course I've taught for the past two summers is called issues and choices, which is just a fancy way of saying critical thinking. My class motto is work hard, think harder.

Now, when I met Avery, I began each day like most teachers - hopped up on coffee, my best possible face on, praying to everything holy that these kids do not test my patience. When I spoke to my students, every eye in the room stayed on me except for Avery's. So I walk over to him. You OK, honey? I ain't get enough sleep last night. OK. I let him lay there 'cause I know what it's like to need a mental health day. But after class, I pulled him to the side, and I say, hey, that was your one and only golden ticket. And you used yours today. I want you here tomorrow ready to work. Do you understand me? Yes, ma'am, Avery answers me so sweet, and I think, what a sweet little pumpkin.


LEE: The next day, I was ready. The students walked into the classroom, and I was slapping "These [expletive] Ain't Loyal" by Lil Wayne and Chris Brown.


LEE: And occasionally, I paused the music and I addressed the class. Hey, what you all think this song is really saying? Hey, Avery, what do you think this music is about? Avery rolls his eyes at me. What that mean, Avery? It mean, can I go to the bathroom? Can I get some water? I don't want to be here.

My temper, (laughter), my temper shot up like a rocket. So I said, yes, Avery, I think you should leave. Avery walks past me and rolls his eyes, and I roll mine back at him.

So I talked to some of the other teachers. I said hey, he spaces out in class. I've never seen his handwriting. He doesn't turn in any of his work. I don't know what to do. And the other teachers say, you mean, he comes to your class?


LEE: That is progress. Wow. Turns out none of these teachers have seen Avery's handwriting. Come on, Joyce, it's just the way he is. He's just lazy. You can't win them all. You can't win them all. You can't win them all. That phrase, it echoed in my head until it annoyed me. You know, what's the process of elimination for you can't win them all? What decides what students are worth saving and throwing away? Grades? Tests? The self-motivation of a teenager?


LEE: I decided, hey, the only way I'm going to get through to Avery is to talk to Avery about Avery. So the next day, just like clockwork, Avery sat in the class as usual, staring into his own world. And as soon as the bell rang - hey, Avery, let me holler at you for a minute. Avery lets out a deep, frustrated sigh. What? And it just made me want to...


LEE: But I was ready for him. I said, you know what? What is a good beginning? What you going to do with your life, Avery? What you want? What you here for? What's going on? Avery said, yo, I'm going to be an NBA player. Ms. Joyce, you don't know. I'm good. I'm really going to go. You just don't know.

This was the first time I'd ever seen Avery passionate about anything.

Avery, nobody's saying you can't go to the NBA. I just want to know how you're going to get there. They don't draft out of high school anymore. You got to go to college. Your attitude about your education is completely self-destructive. How can we change it together?

Avery looks at me like I got 10 heads. And then his face went back to resting. I ain't got to listen to you. I ain't got to listen to nobody. I don't care. I just don't care.

But I did, and I wasn't giving up. I called Avery's parents. We came up with positive incentives if Avery finished all his work. I even geared some of my lesson plans around the NBA. Nothing. Avery would not participate. And that gave me a feeling of helplessness. And I began to dislike Avery because of it. So I stopped mentioning the positive incentives, and I stopped calling home. And I stopped calling on Avery in class. In fact, I stopped talking to Avery altogether. I mean, he wasn't in my class if he wasn't in my class.

So after a couple of weeks of only paying attention to the children who paid attention, I didn't see Avery at all. But I did see his best friend, Steven, in the hallway in passing. Hey, yo, Steven, where's Avery?

Oh, yeah, he gone. He said he ain't coming back to school no more. But he told me to give you this.

Steven takes out a small T-shirt with a picture of Avery on it as a baby with a note attached to it from Avery in rushed handwriting that said, keep this shirt. I'm going to buy it back from you with my first NBA check. Steven could see my heart drop through my face. Hey, don't trip, Ms. Joyce. We all saw it coming. Steven's words echoed down the hall with him, and I just stand there, stuck, replaying every class I ever had with Avery over and over again in my mind. I thought about Avery all the time, especially on graduation.

When I signed up to be an educator, I signed up to witness all of my children graduate. But when it came to Avery, I dropped out. When I saw that he wasn't learning the way I wanted him to learn, I dropped out. When he became too much of a challenge, I didn't work hard and think harder like my class motto. I didn't even show maturity by not taking Avery personally. Instead, I gradually but surely threw in the towel, just like he did.

It's been almost a year since I've been inside of a classroom, and a lot of my friends, co-workers, are saying, yo, you coming back? When you coming back? And a lot of the times, I just think of Avery. I wonder if any of my lessons, any of the residues of them are still kind of echoing between his ears. I wonder what he's doing, where he is. As far as me and teaching, I don't know. I guess I'm still trying to find my way back to school. I hope Avery is, too.



WASHINGTON: The magic of Joyce Lee. Original score composed by Alex Mandel and performed by Alex and the Snap Players, Tim Frick and David Brandt.

It's that time. I know, I know - but not to fear. A world of SNAP awaits your listening pleasure. Full episodes. Get the podcast right now at, iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud - we make it your way.

And this is not the news. No way is this the news. In fact, you work night and day, day and night, pushing, pulling, for your own brass ring, only to realize that there it is in your nose, a brass ring. And what's this? You're a donkey? And even as all that sets in, you would still not be as far away from the news as this is. But this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.