Some Sad School Stories

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.]

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11 comments on “Some Sad School Stories

  1. Good grief, Jamie! There’s got to be some positive storie you can tell. At least I don’t feel so bad about my kids going to Legacy. I don’t think it’s as bad as all that. (At least I hope not, I probably have no clue).

  2. I don’t know you, but happened across your blog when I was doing a search on some topic or other (I forget what). I bookmarked it, because the content was well-written and relevant. I have been following your blog for a little while, but had to comment on this post.

    Sadly, I think that a lot of what you have described is pervasive in today’s society in general. Maybe it is worse here in NV, I can’t say. The real issue here is that attitudes toward education are fostered in the home. Education is not the sole responsibility of the school district. It doesn’t seem like a lot of parents see it that way though. Although I strongly support funding for education, throwing more money at the problem will never take this factor out of the equation. That is why I don’t think that increased spending alone will ever provide improvement that is proportionate to the increased spending.

    After we moved here 6 years ago, we have had to take a more active role in our children’s education. We also had to make some tough decisions to send our kids to magnet schools. There are definitely some downsides and some sacrifices made on everyone’s part. We have one daughter who is in her 2nd year of high school at ATECH. At least there, the majority of kids actually WANT to be there to learn. She still hears a fair amount of cursing in the halls and on the bus ride home. Overall, we have been very happy with her experience there. I hope ATECH is still around by the time our son is old enough to attend. We are not encouraging our children to attend college here.

    It is very unlikely that we will leave Las Vegas before my husband retires. Luckily for us, there are a lot of teachers like you, who care. Believe it or not, it does make a difference. We appreciate you! Although I was never a troubled student, some of my high school teachers had a major influence on my life. I am sure it is very difficult, but don’t get too discouraged.

    By the way, from what I have heard, kids from the poorer sections of town are dropped off at high schools all over the valley. I have no idea as to the legality of it all. Some of it is probably justified by allocating a portion of the slots at some of those schools for magnet kids. Maybe I am cynical, but I personally think it is a way to spread out students from low-performing schools to reduce the number of “failing” schools (based on test scores). Spread out students from areas with low test scores and bring in ones with high test scores to the worst areas. I’m sure that no one would actually acknowledge that this is the reason why. Personally, I don’t know that it does those kids a favor with the amount of time spent on the bus (not to mention the cost). It reduces their free time and the amount of time they can spend doing homework. Although the way you describe it, it doesn’t sound like there is much of that going on. :-(

  3. Laurie, Floyd, Heather: thanks for the support, all! I certainly didn’t mean this to be a pity party, though; I just think that people on the “outsisde” of public education like to know what’s going on in here. And Laurie, I have friends at Legacy–it’s no better or worse than anyplace else.

    “Mom,” amen to everything you said. I have my oldest kid in a magnet school, and hope to have another there next year.

    I wrote this post on Thursday; on Friday afternoon, right before leaving, I called a kid’s dad. This boy seems to think and act like a six year old–totally unable to focus for more than a few minutes, frequently refuses to work if he doesn’t want to, and was cussing up a storm on Friday, despite being told directly to knock it off. Obviously he has a 504 for ADD, but from what I’ve seen so far (he’s only been in our school for a few weeks), I think he might need to be in special ed. (I emailed the counselor and special ed department chair about it this week.)

    I briefed his dad on his behavior and academic needs in class, and dad did just what I noted in the post above: launched into a ten minute sob fest about how tough it is with this boy. Apparently, the kid had once swallowed a whole bottle of pills just because he was mad at his parents. He’s seen several doctors with little benefit. Dad admitted he’s had to physically restrain him at times. I shared some honest sympathy, letting him know that I hope he’s successful, but telling him that his son will be getting detentions and dean’s referrals if there are more days like this. He enthusiastically agreed. (I do appreciate support like that, at least.)

    He also told me that he had just recently started raising his son after he’d gotten into too much trouble over the years with his mom in California. Now, he’s gotten so far behind in school that she’s relented to send the son here with his dad. I knew two kids like that last year, too. I think this must be another big trend in our society: mothers raising kids until they get out of control, then shipping them off to dad so he can clean up the mess. (In fact, come to think of it, Twilight starts off with a slightly modified and muted version of this trend, but it’s there.)

    But why in the world do all these parents try to fix their kids by sending them to Las Vegas?

  4. Jamie, I was a senior in 1975-76 at Clark, and took an English class inaccurately called “Rhetoric” from a Mr. Harrington. He *encouraged* us to cuss, both in class and in our writing. In fact, the first words I heard him say when I signed up for the class as a new move-in was “smart as hell, eh?” He had a discussion one day about how cussing was a part of the adult world, and our writing would not reflect the modern world unless we included as much foul language as we could. Kids responded by laughing and competing during that hour for who could say **** the most times.

    I was the only — the ONLY — one who objected. I lost a lot of respect for my coreligionists in the class who couldn’t even support me once I did object, never mind the rest of the heathens.

    And because I was on a zone variance, I had to walk from Clark all the way down to Alta, much of the way being followed by carloads of boys driving very slowly and yelling at me out the window, “Hey, do you ****?” That continued all year long. I hated my year at Clark, in large measure because that teacher and that class did that to me.

    That was more than 30 years ago. Looks like you’re in part reaping the fruit of Mr. Harrington’s crudity and, in my opinion, criminal behavior.

  5. Ardis, this real piece of work seems representative of a generation that had no idea where society would go as they pushed the enevelope of acceptable behavior ever further. (Ever read Anne Tyler’s terrific story “Teenage Wasteland?” She has a theme that approaches this understanding.) Sorry to hear about your experience; what a terrible waste of a senior year. My wife also went to Clark; I’ll have to ask if she knew him.

    This guy reminds me of a sub I knew named Mr. V.

  6. Just read about Mr. V. Reminds me of Mr. Bosta — mention skiing anytime during the class period, and there would be no algebra for the rest of the hour. I mean the bare mention of the word, as in “Hey, Bosta, SKIING!!” and he would launch into recounting some feat on the slopes.

    I don’t know how as a teacher you can do much in one class period when the other four or five during the day might be poisoned by the Harringtons and V’s and Bostas, but I’m glad you try. There might be *somebody* who’s listening.

    [madly checking my use of apostrophes before hitting “submit” …]

  7. There are those who might criticize the apostrophe between the “V” and the “s,” but I’m not one of them. Though you don’t apply it consistently here (“Bosta’s” would have helped), it’s logical and has come into common, accepted usage. But hey, who’s perfect? Happy Friday!

  8. I was once a student in Huston’s American Lit class last year- and BOY! Have I seen my share of troubles at Centennial then I have anywhere else. I think the reason that kids are so lazy is because our school district has gone down the drain from what it once used to be, and it’s corrupted by many federal archetypes who like to play with money instead of their own heads. Perhaps there is a reform in the future, but for now, nope! We will stay 50th in the nation for education unless our schools, school officials, students, and school board make a promise to give each student the attention that they need; as well as the assurance that they are able to make a living and be successful in the future. Too many kids don’t take high school seriously; and when they flunk out, they end up selling drugs on the street corners and living off of welfare in their mother’s basements. It’s a damn shame.
    PS: It’s me, Albert, from your 3rd period American Lit class of the 08-09 school year. I found your blog site months ago, and I HAD to save it in a bookmark- these topics anyone can almost relate to.

  9. Albert, thanks for commenting. Good to see some clear thinking (and writing!) from a former acolyte. Of course, houses around here don’t have basements, but other than that, you know I’m board with everything you said! :)

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