Saving Souls in Bunches

My colleague Joe Franzen recently recalled a meeting, during which he learned of a supposed Emerson quote: “You don’t save souls in bunches.” I googled the quote, and I found a whopping one page on which these exact words appear.   It took Google .15 seconds to retrieve the results.  Maybe I’ve got the quote wrong. 

Regardless of it’s origins, or even if it is paraphrasing a well-known aphorism, I can relate to these words.  Not because I’m a cold-hearted guy, but because I’m a realist–the social, emotional, and peer baggage that students bring into room 137 is downright overwhelming if cataloged on a student by student basis.

As educators, we don’t save souls in bunches.  Far from it.

One of my former students recently got apprehended by the police after bringing a shotgun to school in his car.  One student I rode the bus with came to class today completely stoned. We had just had a heart-to-heart while on the #17, talking about choices and looking past the immediate future.  Another pulled a fire alarm before spring break, received a 10-day suspension, and I haven’t heard from him since.  He’s still enrolled, but he hasn’t appeared since April 6th.  I remember the last day I saw another student, and she wouldn’t talk to me despite my efforts.  The next day she withdrew, and is now in a school for homeless or abused children.

As a teacher who cares greatly about the well-being of his students, I know that this is my reality: I won’t get through to all kids.  Some will drop-out, commit crimes, and otherwise fall astray.

Say a student spends 175 days in school for thirteen years–if they make it to senior year–at an average of seven hours per day.  That equals 1,225 hours a year for a total of 15,925 hours.  How many hours are students outside of school during a calendar year, including summer?  7,535.   Students are with adults in schools, some caring, some not, for a mere 16% of their lives during this time.  

We explored the big ideas of fate, luck, and chance when it comes to home-life, parent education level, and income. I remember one student saying something like, I go home and nobody’s there.  Of course I’m going to have a harder time doing well.  If a student has this realization that they’ve been dealt a lousy hand, it is only the student who can decide to overcome the odds.  Whether overcoming the odds is merely graduating high school, eventually continuing schooling in some form, or just staying out of trouble, depends on the individual and circumstance.  

The longer I teach, the more blessed I feel to have grown up with two loving parents in a safe neighborhood, surrounded by well-adjusted, well-educated, and successful adults.  Sure, there were bumps along the way.  But compared to what I see and learn every day teaching high school in Louisville, it’s nothing. 

If I worried incessantly about what students had to overcome to do well academically and socially, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.  And I wouldn’t be able to do my job well.  I’m not going to stop trying to reach every student in a positive way, but unfortunately I can’t save souls in bunches.


  1. It would break down societal walls, if done well. If done poorly then it will end up with no students participating well enough to be as meaningfull as it should.

  2. Ryan, great insight. Do you think somehow schools and classrooms should attempt to create environments where all students feel comfortable trying to talk about their experiences?

  3. I remember when we where all talking about depression and bullying in health class this trimester, we watched many news reports about suicides and emotionally broken teens. The entire class was swept into this state of thought, wether it be about expreances of being bullied or the bully, everyone was in a deep trance. The silence was broken by a girl crying and her most traumatic experiance of her life so far. The bell rung to interupt a touching story. Everyone walked out of the class with a bad taste in our mouths. The next day, everyone came together, talking, sharing, opening up in a way I have never seen in my 11 years of being a student.

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