There are forty students enrolled in my third hour class. Thirty showed up today: one had been suspended, nine others were truant.
For the previous two classes, their homework—as explained at the beginning and end of each class and posted on the board—was to get a copy of a novel from a list I’d given them, and merely to bring it in to class today. The list included authors such as Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury (and, for that matter, J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer) among two dozen others, the only other requirement being that the book they choose be at least 250 pages long. I told them that our school librarian had a copy of the list and could help them find a book. Obviously, they had a few hundred books to choose from.
Out of the thirty students in class today, only ten had a book. A few others probably had a book but left it at home. However, the vast majority of the unprepared twenty clearly hadn’t put forth any effort at all, hadn’t bothered to write down or remember the assignment, and had lost or thrown away my handout list. They didn’t even care enough to try to do it. Keep in mind that the assignment was merely to have a copy of the book with them. That was it.
And only one-fourth of the kids in that class will get credit for it.
Is this a remedial class? Far from it. They’re solidly average, the fat part of the bell curve, wholly representative of diverse youth in Las Vegas in every way—racially, economically, etc. They’re also pretty decent kids, for the most part—they have pleasant enough personalities and I enjoy working with them. And also remember that I work at one of the best (relatively) schools in our valley.
I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone move to Las Vegas.
Two months ago I wrote about a suicide at my school, and mentioned that it moved me to contact the mother of a troubled young man in one of my classes and tell her that he had made some improvements lately.
To bring you up to speed, since that phone call, the young man in question has gone back to sleeping through most classes and either goofing off or sullenly sulking when awake. I finally tried calling his mother again a few weeks ago; I only got a machine, and she didn’t respond to my message. I then spoke to his counselor and the school nurse about him. The nurse was familiar with his poorly regulated medication, and we could only all shrug our shoulders at a physical issue we were powerless to help.
Last week I sent him to the dean since nothing else had made a difference to him. His stubborn insistence on failing had now become a behavior issue, and the dean dutifully scolded him and tried to implement discipline. The last time I saw him in class, he still sat there doing nothing. I reminded him that he had recently said that he would start working again when the new quarter started, which was two weeks prior. His response was to cheerfully quip, “What does it matter? They want to kick me out of school anyway.” I didn’t ask who “they” was.
This morning I prepared to write another referral to the dean—sadly, taking the punishment to a higher level would be the only option for continuing to reach out to him.
But it was unnecessary. First thing this morning, a student aide came in from the office with a form for me to fill out and sign—a withdrawal form for the student I’ve been describing. The only thing written in the line for reason for withdrawal was “moving.”
Where is he moving? Why? Is there another story here? I’ll never know. I admit, part of me is relieved that I won’t have this problem child to dominate my attention any more. But he was a nice guy, and a smart kid, and I wish him well in life. I hope he turns out OK.
So far this year I’ve seen several kids in my classes withdrawn from school for chronic truancy, one sent to juvenile hall, and one kicked out for having drugs in his locker. And the year is still young.
There’s a kid in one of my classes who frequently skips school and does little work even when he is here. He spends most of his time, like many of his peers, mechanically tagging pages of his tattered notebook. When he isn’t doing that, even after being told directly not to, he’s trying to catch the eyes of a couple of credit deficient older girls in the class so he can flirt with them. (I gave him detention once, which he also skipped, so I sent him to the dean, where he was given a day of in-house detention. Then life went back to normal.)
A few weeks ago I was handing out overdue book slips from our school library, when I noticed that the one for him listed a book that was missing from a middle school in another part of town. I asked him if he still lived out there. He admitted that he did. I asked how he gets here every morning. He said he takes the bus.
I did a little detective work to find out why a kid who lives halfway across town is going here. Is he on a zone variance, like schools might give to athletes or the children of employees? No chance—he fails most of his classes and, were he on a zone variance, that would automatically get him booted out. So why is he here?
I found out that he is one of several dozen students at our school who the school district has bused in from a poorer part of town since our school opened ten years ago. Apparently, our school is “too white,” and these minority kids are brought in here to help balance it out, I suppose. (Not that this makes any real difference, though—our school is still overwhelmingly white.)
I admit, I was hoping that there was some kind of mistake made here, that this kid had tried to sneak into our school when he wasn’t supposed to and that we could now withdraw him. No such luck. But now I have to wonder, in light of the Supreme Court’s anti-racial busing decision in the summer of 2007, how is this legal?
In one of my English 101 college classes this semester, there was a guy who came to the first week of class, then missed the next two weeks. Then, I got a phone call during my office hours—it was this young man, telling me that he was out of town on a family emergency, and he would be back to catch up the following day.
I didn’t see or hear from him again for three more weeks, until the day of our midterm. When I got to class that night, there was a guy standing outside waiting for me. I didn’t recognize him, it had been so long since I’d seen him. As I approached him, he handed me a note. I opened it up and read it.
It was a note from his mother, explaining that he had been out of town for a family emergency. I didn’t even finish it; I folded it back up and returned it, saying, “This is ridiculous. You’re an adult; you don’t bring a note from your mom.”
He apologized and said that he was back now and asked if he could get his make up work. I said, “What make up work? It’s not like there are a few worksheets I can give you and it’s as if you were never gone. You’ve missed over a month of instruction and practice. There is no making that up.”
He said that he had been doing the work while he was gone. “No, you haven’t!” I said. “What could you have possibly done? You never emailed anything to me. You never requested directions for any work. You certainly haven’t turned in any of the large essays and projects that have been due by now.”
He looked kind of blank but unfazed, and said that he would come in and take the test, and we could talk about it more afterwards.
“Talk about what?” I asked, exasperated. “Your grade is far too low to salvage. There is no way you can pass this class.” He nodded and started walking in, saying, “It’s OK. I’ll talk to you after the test.”
So he took the midterm. (Surprise! He got the lowest grade out of all my students.) As people started finishing and turning it in, I realized that he would probably be the last to finish, and we would be left alone. I got nervous.
When he did turn in his paper, he launched into a speech about getting partial credit for some of the work he could make up. I cut him off. “Look,” I said. “I’ll make this simple. How many classes have you missed?”
“Oh, I don’t know, but it’s a lot.”
“It’s nine. You’ve missed nine classes in a row. The English department’s policy is that students lose credit after seven absences. You’re over your limit. The only thing you can do now is drop the class so the F doesn’t show up on your transcript.”
He paused, then said, “Uh, I’m gonna go talk to my counselor about this tomorrow.”
“OK. You do that,” I said as he walked out. That was over a month ago. I haven’t seen him since.
I got an email from another college student last month that informed me that he would be missing class that week because he “has to be in Kansas for court.”
In October, I saw a student in a class texting on his cell phone instead of working, so I followed the school’s policy (and my own sense of duty) and asked for the phone, which would then be turned in to the dean. (You’d be surprised how much time teachers have to waste doing dumb stuff like this.) He refused to turn it over (which also happens surprisingly often). So I followed procedure and told him to turn it in or go to the dean. He said he’d go to the dean. On his way out of the door, he cursed at me.
It’s an especially immature class, so it took a few minutes for their outbursts to die down (“Ain’t you gonna go git him? I’d pop him if I was you!”). After school, I called his mom to brief her and insist on an apology from her son.
She felt terrible and explained that this boy has had a hard life: his mother was on drugs when she was pregnant, his parents both abandoned him when he was little, and she was his foster mother. Further, she admitted that her last husband was an abusive alcoholic, and her new husband and this young man don’t get along. She was quite frank about her story.
I get parents telling me stories like this several times each year.
I took my family to our school’s first football game of the year. We sat in the middle of the bleachers, crowded by kids but with a great view of the game.
Maybe I was too focused on the game. After a while, my wife asked me, “How can you stand this?” I thought she might have meant the crowding or the heat, but I wasn’t sure. “Stand what?” I asked. “All the cussing!” I looked around and, sure enough, despite that fact that a teacher was right there with his little kids, every other word of every conversation was grossly vulgar.
I realized that I had automatically tuned it out because I was so used to hearing that kind of talk in my classroom every day. It wasn’t like I could tell one kid to clean up his mouth–everybody was cussing up a storm. We moved to the lonely, empty far end of the bleachers and had a much more enjoyable time.
Kids have always cussed, of course. The difference with this generation is that it has grown so far into the public arena, imbedded itself so deeply into their thoughts, that many of them are incapable of refraining from it in any environment. I remember my first year of teaching; I worked at an inner city school. Kids there spoke with the nastiest gutter language I can remember–constantly. Now, ten years later and in one of the most affluent parts of town, the majority of kids use profanity in class as much as they can, with only the most nominal of feigned shame when I catch them and call them on it.
I can only scold students in my classes who swear–or give them detention if it’s truly outrageous–but that’s it. Sending students to the dean for foul language would be a joke and a burden to the deans–there are only three of them and they have much weightier issues to handle. It would be like expecting the NYPD to take seriously every stolen bicycle in the city. They’re so swamped with larger issues, this “smaller” stuff has to fall through the cracks.
The civility of our society has probably passed a point of no return.
We didn’t go to any other football games this season.
Our school district allows people to “pre-arrange absences,” so that they don’t count against a student’s truancy total and so that you can (theoretically) get some homework beforehand and do it while you’re gone.
I’ve signed a lot of those forms already this year, some for reasonable reasons–a funeral or Yom Kippur, for example. But how many have I seen that fill out the “Reason” line with “vacation” or “family trip,” often for an entire week? Half a dozen? Ten? In just my own classes, in the first part of the year. This is in addition to the girl whose strong grade dropped a full letter grade because she had to go out of state for a week as part of an ongoing custody battle.
Truly, I can’t encourage anyone to move here.
[NOTE: This is my 500th post.]