Stewart treated him like a son, Didi felt, giving him extra time on tests and talking to him in her spare time. "That was when I started caring about my grades. I wasn't misbehaving."
Still, Didi was hardly an ideal student.
Erin Haroth was one of the first-year teachers Shouldice had chosen to put his faith in, plucking her resume from the dozens he had reviewed. Now Haroth was returning to the neighborhood where she had grown up to convince seniors just five years younger that they could love "Hamlet" and learn to write.
Her first week on the job in 2009 was overwhelming. She was working night and day, and the students hadn't even shown up yet. Beyond all the details of learning the school, her mentor wanted to review two weeks of lesson plans for each class she was teaching before school opened. "I remember thinking, 'I don't know if this is going to work out,'" she said. The other first-year teachers were feeling the same way.
Her nerves were calmed by the arrival of the students, who didn't seem to know or care whether she was a first-year teacher with jitters. Her one advantage was the credibility her local roots gave her. Students knew she didn't look down on them because they were from Dundalk, because she showed pride in her community and she expected them to be proud too.
The start of the school year came soon after the death of her father, a former teacher and principal whose loss forced her to take her first halting steps as a teacher without his usual guidance. And over the next six months, she watched six students lose their fathers too. "Every time that happened, I would see these kids in the same kind of grief I was experiencing," she said. One boy confided to her after his father died that he was alone in the world. Halfway through his senior year, he was living by himself or was moving from one friend's house to the next. He was bright, but she recognized that if he didn't finish that year, he would never graduate from high school.
So she reached out to him, and left notes of encouragement on his desk each morning to tell him she was glad he had made it there. "He really needed someone to hope that he was going to be in school. He needed someone to want him to do well," she said.
At the end of the year, she gave out a teacher evaluation form for students to complete. She felt she had done the best she could in her first year to keep one step ahead of the kids. Her mentor — one of three in the building — had been a steady presence, available at a moment's notice to act as a coach and cheerleader. She knew she showed promise, that she had earned the respect of her students and was able to manage the classroom reasonably well, but had it been enough?
Her second-floor classroom was sweltering that day in May and she was anxious to leave when the bell rang, but she was so curious about the evaluations that she put up with the heat.
Sitting at her corner desk with the stack of papers in front of her, she made her way through the pile, finally getting to the one from the boy who was adrift after his father's death. It said simply: "I am not going to answer all these questions. I'll just say you saved my life."
The attempts at improving the school sometimes came in incremental steps and in frustrating setbacks. Shouldice had great hopes for a young first-year teacher, but the teacher was full of self-doubt. A month into the job, he walked into the principal's office and quit.
Shouldice was angry; he knew it would be harmful to a whole lot of kids who would fall behind if they had a substitute for a long time. So he asked the teacher if there wasn't something he could do to keep him. "I think you have the talent and will be a good teacher," he told him. But Shouldice recognized it was no use.
Shouldice went home that night questioning himself and his staff. Maybe they hadn't done their jobs well enough to help a struggling new teacher.
By the time he found a replacement, the classes were out of control.
The struggle to get students to show up each day to learn was a battle waged on several fronts, including the telephone. Teachers were calling students to wake them up, and the school was providing incentives for good attendance. Still they weren't making enough progress.
But there were leaps as well. The new technology, made possible from state and federal grants, had turned a school with overhead projectors into one rich with computers. Teachers now displayed lessons from their laptops, students could check a laptop out of the library and they were experimenting with iPads.
And the school's faculty, including the football coach, Brian Powell, were more involved in the lives of students. Powell followed Didi into his English class one day determined to make him understand that he cared not just about how well he threw a spiral, but also how he did in class.