When we interview students for our program, it's hard to predict which ones I will gravitate toward when they actually become our students. Because of A) my cynical nature (gasp! you say) and B) the number of times I've been burned, I try not to get my hopes up too high about any of them. You're a loser until you prove me wrong. Well it's not quite THAT bad, but they know to put on a pretty face and say the right things in their interviews, and then their true colors shine bright once they enter our program. Therefore I try to reserve judgment until I've had a chance to see them in real action. Or inaction, as the case may (all too frequently) be.
I've always been drawn to the trouble kids. And the troubled kids. I'm not bragging when I say that in a lot of cases I was able to relate to them when other teachers couldn't. It's not a skill, it's not a talent. It's just something I have that I don't know HOW I have. Perhaps it's empathy for those students whose misbehavior reminds me of that of both my brothers.
When I first started teaching in an inner city school, I had some rough classes, because the newest members of the faculty always get the most difficult students AND WHY IN GOD'S NAME WON'T SOMEONE CHANGE THAT? I remember one particularly hardened group in my 3rd period class, all boys, all bored, all marginalized in some way. There weren't many in the class, because those tended to drop out fairly quickly, so at least I wasn't as outnumbered as I could have been. I tried to follow the curriculum and, because I was a new teacher, I wasn't nearly creative enough. We muddled through illustrated versions of Romeo & Juliet and other classics, and I truly thought I was doing what they hired me to do. I'm not sure I reached many of them, though.
There was a young man in that class who went by the name of "Red." I wish I could remember his real name. He wasn't redheaded, and he was trouble with a capital "T." But I liked him. And I was probably more than a little afraid of him. These kids were most likely to respond to you if you were REAL with them, and maybe that's why I got along with them. One day Red was flashing a wad of cash during class, and I scolded him. "What are you doing with that kind of money at SCHOOL?" I asked him. "It's not safe to carry that kind of cash around."
"I'm going to buy me a new pair of tennis shoes after school," Red replied.
"Well, don't bring that much money to school again. It's dangerous."
Sure enough, the next day Red sported a new pair of whatever the hot tennis shoes were at that time. AND he had a wad of cash. I jokingly (and stupidly and naively) asked, "Red, where do you GET that kind of money? Whatever you're doing, I think I want to try it too, so I can have me some money like that."
Red got dead serious, and I believe he would have turned pale if he hadn't been African-American. "No, Mrs. Bragger," he said, "I don't think you do." He looked genuinely frightened that I might do something foolish (as he was obviously doing) just to make some money. I believe he would have tried to stop me. I have been touched by that little exchange for my entire teaching career. I wonder what Red is doing now, if he's in prison, if he's still alive, or if he turned things around.
Another student in that same group was named Shawn, and I had had him the year before in middle school. Shawn had the worst stuttering problem the speech pathologist said she had ever seen in her ten years of working with students. He would open his mouth to speak, you could hear the air rushing in (or out), his mouth would move a few times, and occasionally he would manage to blurt something out, but it would be so fast that I couldn't understand him. It might be as simple as asking for a pencil, but it was an ordeal for both of us. I would apologize and ask him to repeat it. It's a wonder he ever spoke to me. But he kept trying. In middle school we all had to teach a "transition" or "special" or whatever the heck they called it back then, and I was assigned to teach an 8-week unit on speech communications. Lucky me, Shawn wound up in that class. Mercifully he was absent one day, and I spoke to the class about the fact that Shawn just wouldn't have the same set of requirements as the rest of them. Bottom line. End of story. I think they understood, or perhaps they were relieved they wouldn't have to watch Shawn suffer in front of the class, trying to make a speech about washing a dog or something.
Then Shawn wound up in my high school class, and he was probably grateful to have a familiar face. His stuttering was no better, but we got along fine. I was never one of those teachers who forced students to read aloud, and I didn't usually call on them cold in class just to prove to the rest of the students that some of them didn't know the answers. One day, though, I was going over some questions in class, and Shawn raised his hand. He volunteered to answer. I don't even remember if he had difficulty getting his answer out, but the fact that he WANTED to answer the question for me has remained in my mind one of the most triumphant moments in my career. I could easily have stopped the lesson right then and sat down and cried. I hope Shawn is doing well today.
The original purpose of this post, though, is about one of our current students. J.J. is nothing but a country boy, and during his interview he slouched in his chair and was fine with his mom answering the questions for him. We asked him about his past and why he hadn't been successful. He had failed most of the courses he had attempted, mostly because he didn't care enough to try. He would go to class and put his head down, and he only brought about 9 or 10 credits with him.
During the interview, his mother said what his main problem was. She pointed to the one male teacher in the room and said, "Taking orders from you, no problem." Then she pointed at me, "Taking orders from you, big problem."
I bristled at that, and I said, "Then we've GOT a problem, because if you look around this table, most of us are women." I think she said something to the effect that he would work on it, and I pretty much wrote him off in my mind right then. I knew he would come in with an attitude toward the women teachers, he would resist efforts to get him to do his work, and he would become a discipline problem. I didn't expect him to last long, especially considering the number of credits he still needed to earn and his past discipline issues.
Nothing could be further from the truth. He has already completed several courses, and he approached me one day about the possibility of finishing by this May (almost impossible, but admirable still). He has always been polite to me, he never talks back, he says "m'am" even though I don't expect it, and his attendance has been exemplary. Don't get me wrong, he's not the perfect student, but he has been a pleasant surprise. He has a tendency to want to play games on the computer, and he never complains when I take control of his computer and click him out of them. Or better yet, I see that he's playing some sort of skill game, and when I take control of his computer, he can't manipulate his character at all. He has to sit there helplessly and watch his guy die. Or his car crash. Or his bike tumble off a cliff. I take a wonderfully perverse pleasure in doing that. He'll spin around in his chair, grinning, but he never gets offended that I have interfered in his game. Again. But he genuinely cares about his courses, and he is working hard to get as many finished as he can. I believe he will graduate, possibly next December, but definitely no later than May of 2012. And he was for all intents and purposes a drop-out when he came to us.
I'm so glad I can still be surprised.
I don't even hold it against him that he's a Georgia Tech fan.