Let’s say that one of my intractable students was suspended from class and another was absent. The result? The rest of the class could learn something. The saying goes, “It only takes one rotten apple to spoil the barrel,” so when there are two, that is a rotten ass barrel of apples. These two fictional students would be the kind of kids that other parents pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in private school tuition to keep their own children away from. They poison the well.
I have had to continually bear interruptions to my lessons because, for example, Fric and Frac* may decide to throw paper balls at the trashcan, miss, collect the giggles and guffaws of the other 30 teenagers in the room, then slowly and deliberately, with great noise and attitude, get up to throw the trash away. Corrections from me will bring either smartass comments or aggressive retorts. Usually there will be muttering in a language I don’t understand, bringing more gales of appreciative laughter from the crowd. So, unquestionably I am being mocked and insulted to my face on an almost daily basis. And when the bell rings, did anyone learn anything about possessive adjectives? Apostrophes? Not judging by their independent practice. Mission accomplished, Fric and Frac. Nobody learned.
When my students do not show progress on a state test, a test they take for four days in May that has no effect on their grade or whether or not they graduate, then I will be called a failure. An underperforming teacher. When Fric and Frac take their sharpened number 2 pencils, bubble “Fuck you” into their answer sheets in three minutes, then turn to each other and start conversing loudly (they are, of course, on opposite sides of the room) for the rest of the 90 minutes allotted for the test, their scores will come back “Far Below Basic,” and that will be evidence that I cannot teach.
Send them to the principal, you say? That is strongly discouraged. You see, if I send students out of class on referrals every day, my boss will start believing that I can’t control my class. Like a boy who cried wolf, my referral will have less power every time it is sent. Call the parents? I do, all the time. I imagine they have giant hourglasses in their living rooms, counting down the seconds until these kids turn 18 and they no longer have to get calls from the school about them. It has no effect. I have no idea what goes on in these types of kids’ households. Sometimes the stories are painful and tragic, and for those kids, I do feel bad.
I’ve had this type of student in every class for all the 12 years I’ve been a high school English teacher. In the past, one of 3 things would happen: 1) the student would respond to corrective discipline and act better, 2) the student would get in some kind of big trouble outside of my class and be sent away to somewhere else (I never cared where, so happy was I to see them go), or 3) the student would get so tired of not being able to wear me down, s/he would start ditching class and no longer be my problem. However it happened, I could get my class back and my other students could learn. That is, afterall, my biggest concern. As a former president put it, “Is our children learning?” Well, is they?
They never seem to go anywhere anymore. Maybe the budget cuts to our district have limited the alternative education options. They are almost never absent. They show up every day, usually late and making a big entrance, and piss all over everything I’m trying to do. Everything I’m BEING PAID to do. Everything that loving, caring parents who haven’t given up are trusting me to do. In my heart, I forgive them, for they know not what they do. But I keep TELLING them what they do, and I wish that they would listen. It’s their futures I’m working so hard to ensure. I have the wisdom and experience to know what lies down the road for people with no education. Big fat nothing.
And I’ll be honest. It makes me cynical. It makes me feel like there is no hope for public education. I used to think the “old timers” in teaching were a bunch of whiners, imagining some non-existent golden age of teaching when students respected you and principals supported you and parents did their jobs. I am very lucky to have a supportive administration that really cares about students. I won’t go so far as to say I remember any golden age of teaching when I first started out. My students have always been challenging to say the least. But they used to be the exceptions. One or two knuckleheads in a room full of normal kids (and a sprinkle of gifted ones too). Maybe I am just turning into one of the curmedgeons, but it seems to me that the knuckleheads have taken over. Anti-intellectualism has become a movement in America. Nobody cares about grammar or spelling anymore. There is no kind word for a person who likes to study or who gets good grades. Take your pick: geek or nerd.
I believe that I am even seeing the death of capital letters in my lifetime!
I have friends who teach at the fancy rich schools, and their complaints are different, but no less vehement. Cheaters. These kids’ whole families’ identities rest on them being accepted to whatever college they’ve been pushing those kids at since birth. They undoubtedly have pictures of the kids as toddlers decked out in Stanford, UCLA, or Harvard sweaters and hats, holding giant novelty hands. I can almost hear my Berkeley grad husband scoffing, “How dare you mention Stanford in your blog?!”
Oh, and drugs. Private school kids have parents with careers who are often at work. They also have money. And lawyers.
When I think of the devil I don’t know, I tend to prefer the one I do. Hardly unique there.
My lessons went so well today, I almost had a tangible feeling of doing some good. I rarely feel that way. When I walked around and looked at what the students were writing down, I was delighted to see they were getting it! I wasn’t being interrupted by Fric’s inevitable requests to go to the bathroom, the nurse, his locker, the drinking fountain, or the counseling office, nor Frac’s spontaneous bursts into song. The students were watching me, not to see how I’d react to these antics, but to hear what I had to SAY.
It was almost like being a teacher.
*Neither Fric nor Frac represents an actual student in any of my classes. They are fictional amalgams of a “type.”