I'll call him "John." A number of years ago, when I was an assistant principal, I busted John with a bag of weed. That infraction bought him a stay in our alternative school for 45 days. I didn't know John well; (he was fairly new to our school;) and I knew that my potential to impact him would be negligible when he left our building ... so I decided to have a talk with him. Sometimes, when I'm trying to connect with a student, I'll take a walk with them somewhere around campus. On this day, I ended up sitting with John on a concrete picnic table near the stadium. I started in ... "John, how many friends do you have outside of school? You know ... guys that you hang with." He said, "About 14 or 15." I then asked, "Of those 14 or 15 friends, how many would you say smoke weed?" He replied very matter-of-factly, "About 14 or 15."
Two realizations hit me like a ton of bricks. First, this kid doesn't stand a chance if he doesn't find a new group of friends. And second, it is almost impossible for adults alone to counteract the influence of peer groups. John could have the most compassionate teachers in the world. They may be outstanding role models who care about him and strive to motivate him to make good decisions in life. But when the 3:00 bell rings, the positive messages he hears in the school are quickly drowned out by the influences on the streets of his neighborhood. We want kids to reject temptations like illicit drugs because there is a whole other world out there for them. But what if -- as far as they know -- there isn't? What if their entire world is defined by the ubiquity of weed and everything that goes with it?
It occurred to me that perhaps our best chance to save John, and others like him, would be to find other students who could serve as mentors ... or "big brothers." I quickly identified about 30 young men in our school who had the potential to be positive role models for other students. I had a meeting with them as a big group and talked to them about the need to provide student leadership in our school and provide a positive influence for other students.
That night, I went to bed still thinking about the meeting with those young men and about the awesome challenge that was in front of them. I woke up in the middle of the night still thinking about it ... so I sat down at my computer and wrote them this letter. I delivered a copy to each student the next morning.
I don't know where John is ... what he's doing, or if he "made it." As educators, we don't always see the fruit of our labor. We do plant lots of seeds though, and we hope that we are able to impact young lives during the brief amount of time that they are in our care. And this great challenge remains: we must continue to find ways of recruiting and cultivating student leaders in our schools ... and we must always be mindful of "the world" that our students live in ... because the influence of peers will almost always trump the influence of adults.