A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Do-Over on Dropping Out

I had The Slasher in class last year in the spring semester. He once showed me a picture of his favorite guitarist, Slash (he of Guns n’ Roses and Velvet Revolver fame), so that’s how I gave him the nickname. Very muscular. Perputually clad in a thin A-shirt (popularly called a "wife-beater" in our neck of the woods) which exposed copious amounts of armpit no matter what the weather. Silver pirate hoops in each ear. Heavy beardage. Battleship chain attached to wallet in back pocket. Cologne reminiscent of eau d'cannibis bong with a piquant whiff of shitkicker.

He was in the class I thought of as "The Island of Misfit Toys:" one kid who inhabited some planet within the autistic spectrum, three girls who regaled me each Monday of their arrests the previous weekend, two girls who NEVER shut up, one very effeminate African-American youngster who touched a couple of young men way too high above their knees when he talked to them, two guys on the wrestling team who were constantly wearing plastic suits and eating rice cakes, a girl who would not brook any disparaging comments about Charles Manson, a girl who spoke Spanish, a girl who spoke Urdu, a boy with beautiful penmanship from Punjab, the very troubled son of an assistant principal in another building, and five regular kids with eyes wide open in shock.

When The Slasher came to class, he commonly assumed one of two positions before the bell rang to start class. One: legs splayed in front of him like a deer in rigor mortis strapped to the hood of a beat-up '86 F-150 (rust pockmarks around rear wheelwells), eyes glazed over not unlike that same deer's would be after a trip to the taxidermist's had rendered the head suitable for wall mounting. Two: thick torso sprawled across the desk, coat thrown over shaggy, mastiff-like head in an attempt to make himself disappear so that maybe, just maybe, I would actually let him sleep.

Except for the one time he pulled a folded-up piece of an assignment (and a pack of rolling papers) out of his back pocket to put in my hand, I never actually managed to get The Slasher to possess paper, pencil, and consciousness simultaneously. Except for claiming that his dream was to graduate from high school, the closest he was going to come to that this year was if he reached REM sleep in position two in the sixty seconds I would allow him to keep his head down.

In the many conversations I had with his mom, she talked about how he hadn't been the same since his grandpa died, how she wanted him to pass, how she couldn't keep him at home at night, how he never seemed to sleep. I had to tell he that no matter how much SHE might want that and that I might want that, The Slasher had to want it enough to bestir himself.

In the many conversations I had with The Slasher, I reiterated the need to do some study over the material we covered in class, the benefit that actually having a book with him would provide, and the no-sleeeping policy after listening to him talk about how he couldn't sleep at night. When I suggested that maybe he should take his desk home at night because that seemed to have the soporific effect of a tranquilizer dart on him, he actually smiled with a gleam in his eye. He clapped a breadbasket-sized hand on my shoulder and said, "You crazy!" I agreed.

I did the counseling-department tango for this kid, and filled out an intervention packet on him, and talked to the principal who was responsible for The Slasher's discipline referrals, had the nurses check him for signs of drug use, ad nauseum. He ended the semester with a 31%, which he told me was a new record. However, he was handy one time when a great big kid mouthed off to me in the hall one afternoon, because The Slasher suddenly materialized behind me, flexing his big biceps menacingly.

He showed up in young Mr. Musial’s class at the start of this year, but he didn’t last long. Mr. Musial allows the kids to sleep if they want, and so The Slasher was unconscious about 98% of the time. Considering how well rested he was, he seemed remarkably surly in the halls. He dropped out in October, and came to see me in the middle of a class to tell me he was going to work for his brother in sales and make $100,000 a year—and I’ll bet he wasn’t talking about magazine subscriptions. He told me (and the rest of my stunned AP class, who looked at him during this little dialogue like he had sprouted a third arm) that he had a baby at home and that the state was trying to take her away.

I hoped I wouldn’t hear about him getting killed in a drive-by or blown up in a meth house.

The reason why I thought about The Slasher again is that he ran into me in the hallway last Friday. “What are you doing here?” I asked, stunned. He had stubble all over his head, but otherwise he looked remarkably the same.

“I’m back!” he exclaimed. I’d never seen him so animated. For some reason, they let him come back even though the semester is over in two weeks. He told me he wanted to give high school another try. I hope he takes advantage of the chance he has this time. He’s nineteen-- he’ll be twenty in three months. He has helped stack the deck against himself enough already.

I’d like to hope that this story has a happy ending. We've all had kids like this. But you know what they say-- insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.


At 12/18/05, 4:46 PM, Blogger Polski3 said...

Good Post. Serves to remind us that we get all sorts of students in our classrooms, and that for many, their life outside of school is someplace in a distant galaxy, far, far away.......

Is 31%, using differential grading, a passing score for Slasher?

At 12/18/05, 6:05 PM, Blogger educat said...

Yes, yes, and yes. Although it is against all odds, I am a bit proud of any young man who actually comes back.

Please fill us in on his ending.

At 12/19/05, 12:14 PM, Blogger Polski3 said...

I recd. this from another blogger:
"From Instapundit:
CHRISTMAS/HOLIDAY ADVICE to blog readers: Don't do this here, as I don't need it, but go to one of your favorite blogs and make a donation or send an appreciative email. Especially one of the smaller blogs, where the attention is especially likely to be noticed and appreciated. There are a lot of blogs out there, and the bloggers with low traffic often work just as hard as the ones with big numbers. Let 'em know if you like their work."

Thanks for your Blog! I enjoy reading about your teaching life and I appreciate your reading my blog. Happy Holidays!

At 12/19/05, 4:07 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Thanks, Polski. Merry Christmas/ Happy Chanukkah.

At 12/19/05, 7:03 PM, Blogger graycie said...

My "Slasher" is/was L. -- an E.D. kid who absolutely fits every other description of your kid, including armpit exhibition. I would only add that when he was awake, he would lean 'waaaay back in his chair and try to 'secretly' grope the girl behind him -- Miss Thang would giggle and shriek and 'accidentally' slide her chair a little closer.

A few weeks ago, L. wandered into my room while I was teaching another class. He didn't speak, just walked up to me, dropped a hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, shook his head, sighed heavily, and walked out. I haven't seen him since, but his caseworker has told me that he is now doing adult time for something quite serious.

Where do these kids come from? Where do they go? What happens to them? How can the public schools be expected to provide what they need? I agree totally that the Slashers and the L.s must choose to take what is offered -- but what got to them early to cause them to turn down what is offered?

At 12/19/05, 10:54 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I honestly don't know. I think about kids like this at the oddest moments. I feel I have another chance to watch The Slasher, if he sticks it out, if he really comes back once Christmas break is over-- and if he decides to take seriously the opportunity to get an education. It's never to late to learn, of course-- but it will soon be too late for him too use our high school as a place to do it.

Right now he is retreating from the world at our school, and that's not what he reallly needs to be doing here.

At 12/21/05, 11:12 AM, Anonymous exiledokie said...

I dropped out ten years ago, in Oklahoma. I have since returned to school. I satisfied my high school requirements through college work and have maintained a 4.0 GPA for 68 hours in an honors program at my university. I remember every teacher that tried to help me stay in high school, and those memories helped me find the courage and humility to return to school in my twenties. Sadly, those teachers were rare in the OKC school I attended.

At 12/24/05, 1:32 PM, Anonymous k said...

Before children, I used to teach sexual responsibility classes at our juvenile justice center. My classes were full of Slashers and one girl who killed her mother's boyfriend and shot her mother in the kneecaps.
I was pregnant towards the end of my stint there, with twins, and I remember looking at these kids and thinking about how 16 short years ago they were babes in arms. And what the hell went wrong in the
As an about to be first time mother it scared me to death.
(Happy to report all three subsequent children are happy, healthy and great people to know.)
Enjoy your blog, will check back for news of the Slasher.
Happy Holidays!

At 12/25/05, 7:33 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

31% is not a passing grade for anyone. I am not being stiffnecked about this.

Here's why I will not pass someone with a 31%: he already has so many strikes against him, he can't afford to be lied to and told that 31% is an acceptable level of effort-- ESPECIALLY because of all his other troubles.

The Slasher can't afford to not develop a work ethic so that he can one day keep a job and support that baby. He can't afford not to know at least 60% of the material presented in high school-- God knows that's been watered down enough already.

I run a pretty tough class, so I've been told, but I also have one of the lowest percentages of Fs. How? I make the kids feel terrible when they disappoint me.Emothional blackmail is a great tool in the hands of a skilled guilt-tripper-- and I was raised by the Ninja of guilt-tripping mothers. I make it fun, I make it interesting-- but I expect students to learn, and I don't read the textbook out loud in class.

The Slasher HAS to make an education for himself-- it's the only thing that is authentically HIS.


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