I had a conversation with a young man that reinforced for me how long I have been teaching. This particular young man has struggled for years. He came to 9th grade from an alternative setting where he had been sent for bullying. Chuck (pseudonym) was huge, and sweet, a gifted football player, and not very literate.
He often "convinced" other students to give him food or belongings, but he did so largely without malice--he plain didn't understand how intimidating his size was. To compound this habit, he suffered from a lack of impulse control and an exceptionally short fuse if anyone said a word against his mother.
Chuck failed every class freshman year. Then he failed almost every class sophomore year. In his fourth year of high school, he has accumulated a paltry 6 credits. How he managed to avoid expulsion is a testament to a few good teachers and dumb luck. This year, Chuck's luck seems to have run out.
Last week, I saw Chuck during first hour wandering the halls. I called out to him and encouraged him to go to class. Later in the morning, when I delivered work to students in ISS, I saw him again. I spoke to him briefly and he admitted that he hadn't reported to class because he didn't want to go to In School. I again encouraged him briefly to make good choices and went about my day.
After lunch, I saw Chuck sitting in the principal's office. I entered the office and sat down next to him. I asked him what was going on and he told me he had been kicked out of ISS. Chuck knew he had made some poor choices, and he felt bad about it, but he wasn't able to avoid it. It seemed like a good time to lay it all out for him. I said, "Let me tell you what I think happens to you, and if I am wrong, you tell me, ok?" He nodded.
I continued "You come to school, and you don't really want to go to class anyway. Then you get busy socializing, and the bell rings before you even realize you are going to be late."
I paused to gauge his reaction. He seemed to agree, though he didn't say anything, so I kept going:
"Then you get to class and you have missed the first few minutes so you don't know what is going on. You don't want anyone to know you are confused or lost because it makes you feel stupid and you don't want anyone to think you are stupid. To avoid that and because you are now lost and self-conscious and bored you start socializing or cutting up with your friends again and before you know it, you get sent out of class."
At this point, I could tell I had Chuck's undivided attention. His posture had straightened, he was facing me and looking me right in the eye, his eyes had widened, and his breathing quickened. He looked at me like I was reading his mind and he wasn't sure how to feel about it.
So I said "And, let's be honest, because I know you Chuck, from freshman year, we both know that even if you tried, you might still be confused or lost, because you struggle with a lot of stuff like reading, or writing, or math." I stopped and he gave me the tiniest of nods--just enough for me to know he agreed with my assessment of his academic skills.
I paused again, and I asked him "What, Chuck, is the ONE thing in that whole scenario you could change?"
"Going to class" he mumbled, finally looking down.
"Yup" I said "that is the thing in your control." I went on, "The thing is, you might go to class on time and still feel confused or lost, but at least you'd have a chance. And the thing is, I know you think it's easier and safer to choose to fail than to try and fail anyway, but it's not. In the long run, the scariest thing is to be so afraid of trying you never find out what you can do."
Chuck looked at me and nodded more visibly. I still had his attention, but he seemed less tense. He had this look on his face like he couldn't believe I was still talking to him AND he was still listening.
I said "Maybe you should find someone you think is cool, who also gets to class on time, and gets good grades, and hang out with them. You know Ralph? You guys are friends, right?"
Chuck nodded again, so I asked "And Ralph gets good grades and gets to class on time, right?"
"I think" Chuck said.
"Why don't you follow him instead of some of your other friends for a while?"
Chuck shrugged in response, but a small smile was hanging near the corner of his mouth.
"And what if, the next time I see you, it's because you are coming by my classroom to show me the good grade you earned on something, and I can take a picture of it and send it to Ms. C in Israel?" I continued.
This time, Chuck graced me with a full megawatt smile. Ms. C had been Chuck's favorite sophomore teacher. Over the summer, she moved to Israel and many of her students and colleagues miss her desperately.
I figured I better cut my losses so we could end on a positive note, so I gave Chuck a hug and told him I looked forward to seeing him soon.
This story is a good thing for two reasons:
1. How did I know what was happening to Chuck every day? Experience, observation, strong relationships with my students? A bit of all of those perhaps. There is something really positive about knowing kids in general, and this specific kid, so well.
2. And why, with that knowledge, could I still not help him more? I know this doesn't seem like a good thing--and it isn't in a lot of ways. But what is good is that I recognize how much more we could be doing for kids like Chuck. Acknowledging the need has to be the first step towards seeking solutions.