One of the hardest things for a teacher to accept is that he is not going to be able to reach all children.
The instruction methods, the disciplinary techniques, the classroom atmosphere that we use successfully with the greater percentage of our students will simply not work for a few.
And I, like most other teachers, cannot accept that we will never be able to reach those students. We try new techniques, we talk to other teachers to learn how they are able to connect with the student (if they are), and we grow increasingly frustrated as the school year draws to a close and one more student has slipped away.
Brendan Garrett was one of those students I could never reach.
It wasn't because of any kind of personality conflict. When I look back over Brendan's time in my class, I can't recall ever being angry with him. He was never the kind to create a disturbance or to do anything that forced me to take my attention away from the rest of the class.
Every so often, I would talk with Brendan, and I tried not to center all of those conversations on his missing work. I enjoyed those talks, frustrating as they were. At one point late in the 2004-2005 school year, he even told me he liked my class, which gave me the opportunity to ask, "Then why don't you ever turn in any of your work?"
Brendan didn't respond; he just smiled.
As the year drew to a close, I gave a writing assignment on a topic that must have interested Brendan; he turned in the paper on time. Naturally, I thought I had made some kind of breakthrough. No such luck. Things were back to normal for the next assignment.
Finally, the last week of school arrived and I gave my traditional final assignment- critique my class. This gives the eighth graders a chance to tell me what they liked or did not like, what they learned or did not learn, and offers them the opportunity to recommend changes in my class for future students.
There have been times when students who did not put in effort on many (or any) papers for nearly four quarters would turn in astonishingly detailed and perceptive advice and give me insight on why I had been unable to reach them.
I received no such insight from Brendan. He never did the paper.
Brendan Garrett had never been a troublemaker, he had never been one of those students who delighted in taking lesson plans that I thought were well-constructed and turning them into sheer chaos.
He had just been one of those students who slipped away.
All teachers have had the experience of running into former students who created problems for them and having pleasant conversations and at least feeling better that life has managed to work out for those students despite our failure to ever connect with them.
Sadly, I will never have that conversation with Brendan Garrett. The last time he walked out of Room 210 at South Middle School was the last time I ever talked to him.
Brendan Garrett died Tuesday.
Today would have been his 20th birthday.