Spencer Lloyd cleaned out his classroom and office last week, saying goodbye to Manual High School, five years of memories and the choir program that he has led so dynamically.
Five years might seem like a quick stop in the career of a teacher, but at a school like Manual it’s a lifetime. Days are filled with drama — students on the edge of dropping out and crises ranging from teen pregnancy to child neglect. Adding to that, the state took the dramatic step of seizing control of Manual last year and nearly every member of the staff has been replaced since then.
It’s been a momentous era for the school. For Lloyd, 29, it’s been a time filled with heartbreaks but also inspiration. He turned a nearly defunct choir program into the pride of Manual, a program that has become a fixture in the city. Hoosiers from Indianapolis and beyond saw how special and helpful the program was, repeatedly offering much-needed financial and moral support after reading about it in my series of columns on Manual High and later through The Star’s Our Children/Our City campaign. Star readers turned up by the thousands at at concerts and then generously financed the choir’s trip to New York last year, where they performed at Carnegie Hall.
And now it’s over. Lloyd is moving on, entering a doctoral program at Ball State University and accepting an adjunct teaching position at Indiana Wesleyan, his alma mater. He acknowledged that years at Manual can leave a teacher a bit burned out, but he is still inspired by his students.
“It sounds cliche, I know, but it’s definitely bittersweet,” he told me the other day. “The students at Manual had such an impact on me. I learned from them how to be more patient, more loving. I learned what some of them have to go through on a day-to-day basis just to get to school, let alone graduate. So many of them have so many obstacles in life but they don’t give up.”
I met Lloyd on the first day of the school year in 2009 as I was beginning my year-long exploration of life at one of the state’s most troubled schools. It was a school where I found apathy and dysfunction at every turn — until, that is, I walked into Lloyd’s classroom.
As I’ve written many times, Lloyd’s classroom provided me with the hope that failing schools could be saved with the right teachers, right policies and right expectations. He led his classroom with urgency, demanding that his students work hard and set higher goals. He became a quasi-parent, counseling students through personal traumas that no teenager should have to endure. But along with that compassion, and his energetic teaching style, came a rejection of excuses for failure. He insisted that his students were capable of achieving big things despite the crushing effects of poverty and the generational academic failure that gripped so many of their families. He understood that his job was about more than lecturing.
“Working at Manual is not just about teaching,” he said. “It’s also about being a compassionate person. It’s about helping students become better people, not just better musicians. I always say that I taught life and then when we had time I taught music.”
“The classroom,” he continued, “has to be based on a foundation of relationships. The students, at any school but especially here, want to know that you care about them as a person before they’ll care about what a C major chord is. They want to know that you understand they didn’t have dinner last night or that they don’t know if they’ll have a bed to sleep in this weekend. It’s about trust and showing you care.”
And, he said, “Once that falls into place everything is so much easier. That’s when teaching can happen.”
That strategy worked. Lloyd routinely filled his class with students with little or no formal music training and transformed them into better musicians. He revived the school’s defunct show choir, building it into a group that’s routinely invited to perform around the city, on stage at political events and has even backed the rock band Foreigner in front of thousands of fans. He took his students to New York and Chicago, hoping they would see both the world beyond their neighborhoods and the opportunities that exist in life.
But life often got in the way of Hollywood endings. Too often, students disappeared from school or made decisions that threatened their futures. Lloyd talked about one such student this week, a sweet and troubled young woman I’d met many times, a student whose family issues eventually ended her schooling. She was a gifted singer, he said, and with the right grades easily could have earned a college scholarship. He has many such stories of young people who walked away from an education they they desperately needed.
“It’s devastating when that happens,” he said.
But there also have been many triumphs. On Saturday he will walk into Manual one last time to watch its current class of seniors graduate. Among that group will be Lupe Rivera, the valedictorian, a young woman who arrived at Manual four years ago still struggling to master English. She worked hard, in choir and elsewhere, and dreams of working in politics or business.
“She was my political-talk buddy,” said Lloyd, a conservative with a deep interest in politics. “I’m so proud of her.”
For all of the changes in recent years at Manual High, Lloyd’s departure to me sits in its own category. It’s hard to imagine the school without him. His program provided a desperately needed boost of energy and optimism during the worst days of the school’s century-long history. His class gave students an oasis from the troubles found throughout the building, and elsewhere in their lives. He was a reminder of how many wonderful teachers give so much for so little pay every day.
But he’s now the father of two young children and his move is understandable. The life of a teacher at Manual is grueling and he has a great opportunity; he is looking forward to guiding the next generation of teachers at Wesleyan. Manual was fortunate to have him and the energy he brought to his classroom for five years. His students are better off because of him. But on his last day at the school, as he said goodbye, he told his students that he was the lucky one.
“You taught me how to be a better listener,” he said. “We teachers sometimes think we have all the answers. We sometimes think our job is just to teach you, and not to learn from you. It’s not true. As much as you were my students, I was yours.”