Today they graduate.
This isn't your typical graduation. Derech Chaim Academy of Baltimore is an alternative high school for Orthodox teenage boys in crisis. This graduation marks another year of strength and determination, growth and pain, struggles and perseverance.
The room is filled with parents, friends, and community leaders. The graduates step forward to receive their diplomas and give a short speech. The first student, Avi, begins to talk.
"...We had some good times here and I will miss the school. Thanks for putting up with me, Mom and Dad. I know it wasn't easy but you stuck with it. Thank you..."
Avi is a passionate boy. Passionate about working, passionate about learning, and passionate about breaking rules. Yoseph Friedman, the school's director, and I exchange knowing glances. I assume he is thinking about the night Avi broke curfew and drove to New York. Or the time Avi got into a bitter fight with his parents, shattered their car window, and was thrown out of the house. None of that seems matter now. The hug that Avi's parents give him is real.
Jonathan takes the podium next."There are many people in this room I want to thank. I am not very good with expressing myself, so please excuse me. I want to thank..."
Jonathan looks a lot different today than the first time I saw him. Then he was sporting a tongue ring and wearing a long, leather jacket. Today he is dressed in a black shirt and navy blue suit. One of our many late night conversations comes back to me.
"Jonathan, I am not letting you go back to Miami. It is not a good idea. You will just get yourself into trouble again."
"Rabbi, that's it. I am leaving. This has been an absolute waste of time for me. You have done nothing for me. If I decide to mess up my life, then that is what I am going to do. I am out of here." He turned away angrily, and walked off.
Today, Jonathan thanks the school staff for all they have done.
Joey gets up to speak next. He is a small, wiry boy with dark, intense eyes. He speaks softly, almost inaudibly. His mother watches him closely from her seat.
"Last year, my life was empty. I had no direction and no plans. I was getting into trouble and it seemed that there was no hope for me. Well, I want you all to know that I accomplished more this year than ever before. I have my high school diploma. I am preparing to go to college next year, and things are looking really good..."
Joey's words hang in the room, echoing the sentiments of many of the boys over the years. It is a great moment for all of us. We gather for a group hug and now it is my turn as Principal to speak.
"...and I would like to leave you with three lessons. You have heard me mention them throughout the year, but I feel they are so important, so crucial, that as you are about to move forward in your lives, they should be repeated.
The first lesson is found in the story of Ruth. Ruth took that one extra step of following her mother-in-law, Naomi while Orpah chose to leave. Ruth was blessed with the mighty King David as her descendant and, Orpah, who led an almost identical life, committed terrible acts of depravity after she left Naomi..."
"God looks forward to having that relationship with you, no matter what you did the day before."
Michael had taken that extra step. He decided to stop using drugs for just one week. One week turned to two weeks. Two weeks turned to four. That was two years ago. Unlike his friends who are still using drugs, Michael has a high school diploma and works for an electrician. Steven also took that extra step. After being thrown out of his parent's house, he decided to give the relationship one more chance. He called them a week later. Today, Steven's parents are very proud of their son, one of the best students in a well-known Yeshiva in Israel.
One extra step. Sometimes that is all it takes. But what a struggle it is to take that step!
"Always remember that God wants to have a relationship with you. Every day you wake up, He looks forward to having that relationship with you, no matter what you did the day before..."
How many hours did we spend together on this issue? How many times did they come so close to throwing it all away because they thought they could never go back?
"Look at me, Rabbi. Look at what I have done! Don't tell me that God still loves me! Don't tell me that my family still loves me! Don't tell me that I have a future!"
They didn't believe me then, but from the expressions on their faces, I see that they believe me now.
"... Always focus on your accomplishments, your successes, and every positive step that you take. All of you have grown this past year. Whether it is your relationship with God, your relationships with each other, your level of responsibility, your relationships with your families, your hopes and dreams for the future... All of you, in one area or another, have improved. Think about these successes and they will provide you with the push to continue moving forward..."
There are small, almost imperceptible nods from my students as I speak about their accomplishments and growth. They know the incredible challenges of trying to grow, of trying to improve. They have taken the tiny steps towards self-improvement against unimaginable odds and situations. Today they enthusiastically give each other "high-fives," but we all know it has not been easy.
"...Life can be very challenging and, as you move through it, you may encounter dangerous areas. Areas that can be dangerous to your spiritually, your emotions, your abilities to make good decisions, even your physical health. There are many potential pitfalls. How are you going to make sure that you will safely navigate the road of life?
Look around the room! Look at your families, your friends, your teachers, your Rabbis and everyone who is here with you today. We are your lifeline. Everyone in this room cares about you and wants you to succeed!"
Swimming away from the boat for a short while is fine. Just make sure that stay close enough to grab the lifeline.
I am reminded of Mark, a boy who lived with his father after he dropped out of school. He told me that he was offered a job that paid well, but it demanded responsibility and commitment. "I'm just not ready yet," he said, lighting a cigarette, "I still want to party, you know, have a good time. I'll settle down when I grow up."
"I understand what you are saying," I told him, "and if I were in your shoes, I might do the same. I just want you to think about something. Think of the people who care about you as a boat in the middle of the vast ocean of life. You want to jump into the water and swim away from the boat for a short while, and that's fine. Just make sure that when you want to return to the boat, you are close enough to grab the lifeline they throw to you. You don't want to be so far away that it will be impossible for you to catch it, no matter how hard you try."
He thought about that for a moment and nodded, blowing smoke into the night air. "Okay, I gotcha."
I wonder where Mark is today. I hope he didn't swim too far away.
"...Hold onto your lifeline! Never let go. And by doing so, with God's help, you will safely move forward on your individual paths through life and accomplish great things. May God bless you and watch over you..."
My students look at me and I look at them. There is nothing more to say.
(Names and events have been changed.)