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

Monday, March 13, 2006

What if they don't want to be saved?

I was working in my room the other day during a prep period when I overheard raised voices down the hall. One of my colleagues, Mr. Spector*, was debating with a kid from his classroom. It was obvious the kid was lipping off to Mr. Spector and basically refusing to do anything but sleep in Mr. Spector's class. When Mr. Spector insisted he remain upright, the kid took exception.

Mr. Spector is a fifty-ish second-careerist who is caring, funny, and an ultraconservative. (I forgive him and I love him anyway.) The man can squeeze a quarter so hard that snot comes out of George Washington's nose. He tries every day to do right by his students and expects them to learn something, and that's what matters to me.

So, I hovered out of sight for a few minutes to see if the kid was going to cross the line or if Mr. Spector might need me to escort young Mr. 'Tude to the office. After trying to reason with the kid for about three minutes, he took him over to a colleague's room so that the kid wouldn't wander around the hallway for the rest of class. I walked up right after he had deposited the little blister in the other room.

I asked him if he was okay as he walked back to his room. He turned to me, and there was such an intense look of pain and frustration in his face. He said, "I have done everything I can for that kid. I have worked with him individually. I have called home. I have tried patience. I have tried pushing. I have tried the School Health Intervention Team Referral." (otherwise known as SHIT referrals) "Then he turns on me like this and basically tells me to fuck myself. He's been accepted at an alternative program for next year, so he's decided he's done. Right now I am so mad at that little SOB that I could punch a hole in something!" Mr. Spector was shaking, and tears were almost swimming in his eyes.

I tried to comfort Mr. Spector as best I could, and encouraged him to take a deep breath. I told him that everyone expects teachers to care about their students, but then not let their feelings show when kids are hurtful or hateful or spiteful, and that's really hard. I offered to watch his class while he got a diet Coke or a cup of coffee but he turned me down, and he thanked me and went back into his room where there were other students, waiting.

One of the hardest things to learn about as a teacher is to understand that a few kids really don't want to be helped, and to tread that knife's edge between giving them room to make bad choices and giving up on them completely. The hardest thing in the world is to have someone throw your concern back in your face. We are not supposed to take this personally. Mr. Spector does care, because he is a good teacher. He just hasn't acquired the veneer of distance that would enable him to not take this kid's sneering, calculated indifference as a wound. And of course, this kid was trying to wound. We are not supposed to take this personally, but every teacher has days in which we ache over the hopelessness of some students and their intansigience.

Teachers believe every kid can learn. But some kids see our attempts to teach them as a power struggle. As was beautifully depicted in the poem written by graycie here at Today's Homework, we can't MAKE them do anything. We just have to practice a form of what meditation teacher Tara Brach calls radical acceptance, to have compassion on these lost kids-- can't call them students, and they're certainly not young adults-- while accepting that right now they are not willing to accept what is being offered to them. In doing this, we also have compassion on ourselves, and enable ourselves to go to school tomorrow morning and try to help others who may be more open to what we offer.

*-so named because he loves do-wop music and girl groups


At 3/13/06, 8:52 PM, Blogger EHT said...

Thanks for this post. I agree with your thoughts and you worded them perfectly. This year we even have students as young as K who are defiant and buck authority constantly. It's really frustrating to think how bad off they will be by the time they get to me or you.

At 3/13/06, 9:02 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

That is truly depressing. Where do these kids come from?

At 3/13/06, 10:51 PM, Blogger Smithie said...

Though I was more passive than your kid, I was one of those kids. Several of my freinds were those kids, now 30 somethings (most are successful after struggle). Hated school, hated my parents for making me go, hated my teachers for being there and making me follow rules that I thought were stupid and served no purpose other than to make me follow the rules. If it wasn't for sports and a couple of teachers who NEVER gave up I'm not sure I would have made it through school or to college (it still took me a LOONG time to get through undergrad). When I finished my Masters, #$@!* years later I wrote one of those teachers a thank you e-mail. In his reply he remembered me and my struggles...and that I failed both of the classes I took from him.
I'm not saying it's easy, I know I've had my jacket on and keys in hand ready to leave this whole thing behind a few times but those kids, the ones who have more chance of failing than making it bring me back...
And now I'll take a breath and go back to the depression of more F's in one class than I've ever had in any school year.

At 3/14/06, 3:28 PM, Blogger graycie said...

It is hard to give up on a kid. I've been working after school with a young lady who failed first semester (again). A couple of weeks ago she disappeared -- and today showed up again.
"Two weeks? No, I just wasn't here last Thursday because I was suspended. It hasn't been two weeks!"

But it has, and now I am in the midst of composition-grading season and can't spare the time after school to give her the opportunity to pass what she shouold have passed first semester. She was in tears, and I was sad, but pretty much too tired to feel much.

I told her that if she passes this nihne weeks in all of the classes she is taking, and if she remembers to show me her report card, and if I am free of the comp-graidng burden, I will consider trying again.

At 3/14/06, 3:29 PM, Blogger graycie said...

Oh -- I meant to thank you for the compliment -- I'm glad the poem resonated with someone out there.

At 3/14/06, 9:45 PM, Blogger Dan Edwards said...

Why do we keep trying with these kids? Because we are professionals. Because we care about ALL of our students. Because we know that maybe, just maybe, something we say or do to/for them will light a spark in them.

Why do we stop trying with these kids? Because we have too many who want to be there and who want to learn. Because we personally cannot deal with them anymore. Because we have run out of ideas, patiences, time and heart for beating our heads against their brick wall of attitude and indifference. We just want to survive ourselves so we can continue to help those many, many more good ones.

At 3/15/06, 9:13 AM, Blogger kontan said...

I really felt for Mr. Spector. We've all btdt. Polsk3 says it best I think.

At 3/15/06, 9:14 AM, Blogger kontan said...

btw, LOVE the s.h.i.t. referrals, have to pass that one along

At 3/15/06, 8:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. C:

I'm a first time reader of your blog--well done. I'm a north Texas high school teacher and interestingly enough, I share many of your interests, including martial arts (Kendo and Iaido for me these days), Young Frankenstein, Allison Kraus, etc.

On to the topic. I tell my kiddies (repeatedly throughout the year) that I'll never jump up and down and yell at them. If discipline is necessary, we'll deal with it with a minimum of fuss and I'll be just as glad to see them tomorrow as I was today. But the bottom line is that I will come to school each day well prepared and with the goods. I won't teach them anything that I don't believe to be interesting and valuable. We're here not to memorize content for regurgitation on mandatory tests, but to build bigger, better brains which will lead to more capable human beings. English (my discipline) is just one discipline that will help build parts of their brains that math, athletics, etc. will not. I'll provide the opportunity, each and every day. They have to take advantage of it.

My attitude each day, and everything I do assumes that they are here to learn (more intensively on some days than others) and will do as I ask. If they don't, we deal with it as required by circumstances (sorry Johnny, you don't get to sleep in class). Yes, I talk to them individually. Yes, I cajole, plead, reason, care, love, nurture, virtually breast feed ( a pretty good trick for a mature male) the kids.

But ultimately, some will choose to fail. They will devote substantial effort toward that end. They do it dilligently and with great single-mindedness of purpose. In such cases, who am I to stand in the way of that kind of industry and dedication?

I know, I know. As a teacher, I am ultimately responsible for the success or failure of every student in sight regardless if they are present in the classroom, ever hear a word I say, can't speak English, or merely choose to be dumb as a rock and damned proud of it.

So what's the answer? Do all that you can and more. But understand that we're dealing with human beings, not toasters that can be repaired on the assembly line so that they eventually graduate without flaws, shiny and resplendent in their toastatude. Our toasters have the absolute power to determine not only whether they fully function at graduation, but whether they jump off the assembly line and scoot out the door, finished or not.

Kids are created equal in human rights and under the law, but not in intellectual prowess, perseverence and dedication. We understand this in sports. We know that not every kid will make the varsity. We make no pretense otherwise. Pretending that this is not the case in academics is foolish and destructive to those good, decent teachers who buy into the guilt trip that claims that they can--and must--work miracles. They can't, at least not all the time and in every case.

As long as we have literally done our best (keeping our circumstances and resources in mind, because they are decidedly not equal across America) for each kid, we should consider it a shame when they fail to take advantage of the opportunity we provide. But we should go home happy each day in the sure knowledge of those who do take advantage of that opportunity. That alone should be enough to put that smile on our faces when we arrive for another day of school each morning.

At 3/15/06, 10:20 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Here's the best part-- this kid has been told he'll be in alternative program next year, but he still has to come to school or his status as a dropout will make him ineligible. He also has to do no work or try to behave-- because in fact, that troubled pattern reinforces his case for the alternative program.

When I face kids like this, I try to remind myself that they may decide to get themselves together on their own timetable-- like smithie-- or, then again, maybe not.

Right now it's a hot topic in my school about the alternatives offered to kids instead of the regular high school experience. We get more and more of these kids in this situation, but they are given the same diploma as everyone else for far less rigor and content coverage. The debate has been going strong.

At 3/16/06, 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've made a point of late in asking these 'do nothings' what they're going to do with their lives, and most of the time I hear either (a.) military or (b.) they shrug and go "I dunno."

I often think of the title of Primo Levi's book "The Drowned and the Saved" (about the Holocaust, but never mind that): there are those that sink and those that swim, and sometimes you have to let a few of them go (like Leo in Titanic!).

At 3/16/06, 5:52 PM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

That's a great story. It really shows what such situations are like from our POV.

Nonetheless, if you listen to certain parties, every defect in every kid, up to and including that one is 100% our fault.

How people who listen to those parties become teachers like you describe is beyond me.

Nonetheless, in all fairness, I know a few as well.

At 3/17/06, 9:37 PM, Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

I'm glad you can find a speck of affection in your heart for us conservatives.

I wrote here about a student in a college microbiology class I had last year who I guess could be described as semiliterate. A commenter and I speculated about how she came through the schools and got into college like that. We have schools in this city whose median test scores are below the 30th percentile. Is it the teachers? Parents? The kids themselves? The culture? The curricula? Any combination of the above?

Some systems are set up with the idea that every student needs to leave high school ready to go to college. I think that's unrealistic, and I wish there was a real alternative for kids who do not want to be in school and will not profit from it. Back in the day they would find work on a farm or a factory, or be cowboys, or something like that. That's not an option today. Having a huge illiterate, unemployable underclass certainly isn't an option either. So what do we do with these kids? Stampede them over a cliff? Send them off to colonize Patagonia? Let go of our romantic ideas of every child getting a college degree, and allow them to opt for trade school at age 14? I wish I knew.

At 3/21/06, 6:44 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Laura-- it's not that I can't find a speck of affection in my heart for conservatives-- it's that most conservatives can find no love for me unless I agree with them 100% and completely. Disagree with some of these johnnies, and I'm a commie murdering traitor. Can't stand the lack of intellectual honesty in that kind of instinctual, irrational behavior.

Hell, I support the death penalty, for cripes sakes!

I am a moderate who expects honesty, intelligence, and integrity in our leaders. Some things I'm liberal about-- especially when I think that "x" is none of anyone else's business. Other things I'm more conservative about-- like not expecting something for nothing.

But all who favor open and honest debate are welcome to sit by me. Come on down!

At 3/21/06, 9:00 PM, Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

Well, I'm thought by some to be a conservative-in-name-only. I support public schools, for example. And I could actually do without the death penalty, provided that life without parole or early release is on the table.

And I work with some folks who are exactly as you describe, but on the other side of the aisle. Can't stop with the GWB jabs, can't ever ever stop. I just roll my eyes.


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