A Teacher Reconnects with His Lost Student

Touree Moses’ middle school mentor is a rock star in Montclair who has picked up countless kids and put them on a path to success. Dan Gill is a key player in the life of Touree Moses. The two reconnecting was captured in a documentary called “The One That Got Away”. NJTV Anchor Mary Alice Williams sat down with Gill to discuss the impact of his work.

Williams: Dan Gill joins us now. Thanks again for being with us Mr. Gill.

Gill: You’re welcome.

Williams: Describe Touree as a sixth grader.

Gill: Well as a sixth grader he was a student that every teacher would want. He was the person that was curious, he was the student that wanted to learn, he was a student who wanted to extend the lesson, he wanted to ask questions. And when you saw someone like that in your classroom you couldn’t but love his enthusiasm and it would spread to the other students as well.

Williams: How did his home life affect him?

Gill: His home life was very difficult. It was a huge challenge for him. His mother had been incarcerated as well and was an addict and his father was someone that was very difficult to work with. We would often call him up, there would be no response. There would be field trips and he wouldn’t sign the permission slips and so on. So those were major challenges for him. He would stay after school and say to me, ‘Mr. Gill do I have to go home?’ And that was really heart breaking that I would have to send him home.

Williams: And by the time he was in eighth grade he was class president and the king of the world, right? And then he matriculated, went to high school, and you lost him. What happened?

Gill: Yeah, well I think that what happened was the defining moment in his life is when he went to juvie. He got into a fight and he went to juvie and his father, rather than taking him out of juvie within 24 and 48 hours, let him stay there for two weeks. The kid that came out after two weeks was different than the kid that had gone in.

Williams: Gangs?

Gill: Yeah, and then that’s when the gangs came into his life. The gangs became his family and became his security in his life. We did maintain a relationship with all the teachers that I work with. It wasn’t just myself, it was my whole team.

Williams: So what was your reaction when he was convicted of murder?

Gill: It was terrible because that’s not the kid that I knew. As Tracy Wilson in the beginning of the documentary says, that’s not the student we knew. We had known that he was connected to a gang, we had known that he was involved in things he shouldn’t be involved in. We were still trying to get him to places that were going to help him, but that’s not the kid that we knew and it was —

Williams: Could you have done more?

Gill: That’s always a great question and I’m sure that you could always say yes, but my team, we did all the things that we could possibly do. I think that one of the lessons of this particular documentary is I think number one how much teachers — this is emblematic not just of what I’ve done and what my colleagues have done — teachers throughout this country do this kind of work. We come in and we serve students rather than just as academic mentors, but socially and emotionally and we try to help them and it’s amazing how much teachers do.

Williams: And teachers know that there are certain predictors for kids who are going to drop out and go bad as it were. But you don’t give up on those people.

Gill: No, no and if you watch the documentary I asked Touree what advice do you have for me when I interview him in the prison and he says, don’t give up, don’t give up on any student you have. And I think that’s something that every teacher should remind themselves of because these kids, even though they come in all shapes and sizes and some kids come badly damaged, they are redeemable and you can be that person that helps someone on their way.

Williams: And even if a kid like Touree has given up on himself can you get him back?

Gill: Yeah well, that’s what you try to do and that’s what you attempt to do. You don’t say well just because you’re not engaged I need not pay attention to you. So, yes, teachers need to do that. And I think teachers do that all the time.

Williams: You know people might be surprised to hear a story like Touree’s happening in a town like Montclair which is known for a gold-plated school system.

Gill: Right, so 19 percent of the students that I have are free and reduced lunch. So the concept of Montclair as being an upwardly mobile community is not necessarily true. There are kids like Touree right now and I often say that I have students — there’s one student that I’m mentoring now who’s just like him — bright, intelligent but could go off the rails at any moment.

Williams: And can you intercede in time?

Gill: We’re trying, and I think the other message of this film is that communities need to pay attention to this film from the standpoint of what can people do to help out because we only have a limited amount of resources. But communities really need to think about what they can do to help kids like this work in concert with the schools and other people.

Williams: Because it does take a village.

Gill: Yes, yes.

Williams: Dan Gill thank you for being here.

Gill: You’re welcome.