Perhaps the hardest part of being a high school teacher is seeing students drop out or fail to graduate. But sometimes, students and teachers get a second chance.
Rebecca Dodd was in her early 50s when she decided to go into teaching. She’d worked in sales and marketing and the insurance industry. But she liked solving math problems and to show others how. She was in her second year of teaching at Grand Prairie High School when she met Cheyenne Musgrave.
“She was a student that just captured my heart right off. She reminded me so much of one of my own children,” Dodd says. “She was a very quirky, spunky kid and she just smiled. She just brightened your day when she walked in.”
Cheyenne felt a connection, too. Dodd’s teaching helped her thrive.
“I felt like she understood me and she wasn’t like all the other teachers, because they did judge me a lot,” Cheyenne says. “And, I mean, they just probably looked at my school record and then they started judging me.”
As she got to know Cheyenne, Dodd found out she was having problems at school — personality conflicts with teachers, difficulty with the material or skipping class.
“I was careless and just young-minded,” Cheyenne says.
Cheyenne was also bored and often got into trouble. Some things were small, such as not wearing her student ID.
But other things …
“One time I cussed out a teacher,” she says. “And the other time, I told a principal I was gonna hit a girl in the hallway and he suspended me from school.”
Dodd says she knew Cheyenne just needed someone to talk to, someone to motivate her. So when a personal tragedy struck Cheyenne, Dodd was there. She cried with her.
Later, a school administrator chided Dodd, telling her she shouldn’t cry with her students, that she had to be the adult.
Even though Dodd was a newer teacher, she disagreed. Students, she thought, need to feel that empathy, and sometimes that means walking through the pain with the student.
“I always felt like, from that moment on, because she had confided in me …. we grew from there,” Dodd says. “It wasn’t that we had that chatty session every day. It was kind of a bonding from that.”
But then, on her 18th birthday, Cheyenne didn’t show up to class. Dodd learned she’d withdrawn from school.
“I think I made several phone calls, probably at least 10 to 15 phone calls over a period of time, trying to talk to Cheyenne, and her mom going, ‘She just won’t. She still feels really bad,’” Dodd says. “And so at some point, I just had to let that go.”
Nearly a decade went by. Cheyenne got married and had four kids, but she still remembered her teacher fondly.
“Some people leave, you know, footprints in your life, and she was, like, one of them,” Cheyenne says. “She was cool. She was real cool.”
Dodd got a job at Crosswinds Accelerated High School. It’s a campus in the Grand Prairie Independent School District for non-traditional students seeking a high school diploma.
One day last spring, Dodd opened Facebook and noticed a message. It was from Cheyenne.
“My heart was beating so fast,” Dodd says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe she found me!’”
“I wrote her and I told her, ‘I hope you remember me,’” Cheyenne says. “And she was like, ‘Of course I remember you!’ So we just went from there.”
Cheyenne told Dodd she wanted to finish high school. So Dodd convinced her to enroll in the school where she works.
Today, Cheyenne is taking biology and history classes at night. It’s very different from high school, she says. The schedule and pace are better for her, and it’s great having Dodd as a teacher again.
Though, Dodd says Cheyenne’s taught her as much as she’s taught Cheyenne.
One lesson: That it’s OK to cry with your students.
The other: “That all is not lost when a student drops out, for whatever reason, and that they can come back and be successful,” Dodd says. “They need that second chance and not think, ‘Oh well, I’m too old. There’s nothing I can do.’”
And Dodd says she’s glad she got a second chance, too.
This story is part of the “What My Students Taught Me” initiative, produced in partnership with the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School. Texas public radio stations collaborated on this series — listen to Houston Public Media’s story and Texas Public Radio’s.