When Bill Palmer tells the at-risk students he teaches and counsels at Barrington High School that he understands where they are coming from, they should believe him -- because when he was their age, he dropped out of Barrington High School.
Today, Palmer uses his experience as a way to relate to students and urge them not to make the same mistakes he made.
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"I don't know if being a teacher anywhere else would have given me that same sense of belonging, meaning and purpose from helping young people," he said. "And what better place to do it than the high school I walked away from all those years ago?"
Palmer teaches interpersonal communication resource classes to high school students in each grade. The classes are developed for students that are at risk for dropping out and other behavioral problems because of their social or emotional challenges.
The one common trait among all his students through the years, Palmer said, is that they are not working to their potential. Everybody has an ability level and an achievement level, he believes, and for many, something creates a gap between those levels. For some the source of the gap is trouble at home, or bad social experiences they've endured.
Whatever the reason, Palmer sees his job as helping students figure out how to close the gap.
In 21 years of teaching at BHS, Palmer has never missed a graduation ceremony. He takes pride in spotting his students among the sea of red robes. Seeing them walk by, diploma in hand, almost always brings him to tears.
"It's an emotional moment, especially when the students are crying," Palmer said. "Even the toughest of the tough will. They'll see me and I'll see them and the tears are streaming down their face. It's hard not to get choked up."
"I know if it were not for this program many would have made the mistake I made and would have dropped out of high school," he said.
Palmer missed his own graduation ceremony after dropping out of Barrington High in November 1969 at 17 years old, during his senior year.
Looking back, Palmer said many of the qualities he had as a teenager are ones shared by his students now.
"I often tell these kids that if we were the same age we'd probably be friends," he said.
Like his students there was a gap between his ability level -- he said he had an average IQ -- and his achievement.
His gap stemmed from a few sources, including family issues that he said created tremendous barriers for him.
Palmer said his solution was to surround himself with peers who may not have had his best interests in mind.
"I sought out friends I could relate to the most and it became a race to the bottom," he said.
That changed when he met his wife of 40 years, Jeanne Palmer.
Both attended Barrington High at the same time and knew of each other -- Jeanne said Bill had dated her best friend -- but it wasn't until after he'd dropped out and began living with some friends that they met.
Jeanne said they became fast friends, and ultimately best friends.
Bill Palmer said Jeanne inspired him to be more than a high-school dropout.
To obtain his General Equivalency Degree, Bill first had to take a class on the Constitution at Maine East High School in Park Ridge and pass the U.S. Constitution test. He didn't have a car, so Jeanne ended up driving him to his classes.
His experience in the Constitution class was nothing like high school.
"I was this 18- or 19-year-old punk kid sitting in a classroom with mostly Eastern European immigrants who were there learning for the same test I was," Palmer said. "It was very humbling to be in a room with people who really cared about being there, learning."
After passing the Constitution test, he went on to pass the GED exam and then earn degrees from Harper College and Northeastern Illinois University.
And then, in his own words, Palmer "became a suit."
He spent 14 years working in commercial real estate, developing land around regional shopping centers and raking in all the perks that came with success. By the time he was a vice president at his company, he was making well into six figures, driving nice cars, wearing Brooks Brothers suits and working out of a corner office.
But Palmer said his success felt hollow.
"I had to do something that had more meaning," he said. "I had an aching feeling that I had to do something more than just make money."
Welcome back, Palmer
In the 1970s sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter," a wisecracking teacher returns to his old high school to teach a group of remedial students known as "The Sweathogs."
Even though the show had been off the air for 14 years before Palmer arrived for his first day observing classes at BHS, he was made aware of the similarities.
"'Welcome Back, Kotter' is a funny analogy, but I would never call my students 'The Sweathogs,'" he said.
One of the first classes Palmer observed was an interpersonal communications resource class being taught by Jeff Aron. The class struck a chord with Palmer.
"His path was going to be toward becoming a history teacher," Aron said. "I guess he liked what he saw because he changed his whole direction at that point."
Aron began the interpersonal communications resource program at BHS in 1990 with the goal of helping students whose academic issues were more rooted in emotional and social issues than traditional learning disabilities. Until then the district sent those students to a Lake County special education facility, something the district wanted to change, Aron said.
Palmer's timing was perfect. He began substitute-teaching at Barrington High School in 1991 while earning his teacher's certificate from Roosevelt University. By 1993, just when Palmer was ready for full-time work, the program needed a second teacher, Aron said.
Palmer hit the ground running.
"Bill has the background and the ability to relate to these kids. I had it, not everyone has it," Aron said, explaining that he was a problem child himself growing up.
Even though Palmer's background helped him relate to his students, he at first kept his past in the past.
"I didn't want them thinking, 'If Mr. Palmer can drop out and end up a teacher, then I can drop out, too,'" Palmer said. "Now, I have carefully timed revelations about my own life which helps them better relate to me."
For some students, though, Palmer reveals his background right away to try to change their attitude toward teachers.
"For some, the teacher-student relationship has been so adversarial for them," he said. "It is hugely important to break down that barrier right away."
One such early intervention came years ago with a student dealing with anger issues. Palmer pulled the student into the hallway and sat with him, their backs against the lockers.
"I told him there were people who wanted us to meet. I told him that it was important for him to know that I dropped out of Barrington High School during my senior year," Palmer said. "He looked at me kind of stunned and he would later tell me, 'That was the craziest meeting I'd ever had with a teacher.'"
Palmer said that student went on to college and is now working in a field that he is passionate about.
Since Aron retired in 2008 after 40 years of teaching, Palmer has run the interpersonal communication resource classes on his own.
As a way to get his message out there in the academic community at large, he has written a manuscript outlining the methods of the resource program and his life. The manuscript -- tentatively titled "I Dropped Out of the High School I Teach At: Lessons in Fear and Failure" -- uses his experience as a semi-biographical backdrop.
He said he hopes to get his work published so he can help teachers learn strategies to conquer at-risk students' emotional and social problems.
Palmer says his biggest reward is when he is able to get through to students and help them change their ways.
He keeps on his desk a handwritten letter a former student gave him upon graduation. It serves as an example and reminder of the impact he's had over the years.
"If it weren't for you, it's possible that I wouldn't see this amazing day of leaving the high school," the student wrote. "I know many people must tell you this ... but you, sir, are the kindest, most wholehearted person I've ever met. Words can't describe how hard it is going to be to say goodbye to the magic man who kept me going. You helped me live again, Palmer. You've helped me to love life again and most importantly, you've helped me learn to love myself again."