Thursday, November 4, 2010

Runaway Bunnies

I wasn't planning on writing about it.  At least not yet.

But one of my students was killed in a drive-by shooting a couple of nights ago.  She was standing in the street with her boyfriend, the father, when they pulled up and shot her in the head.  The baby was shot in the leg but survived, along with a number of others who were shot, including the father.  It was gang-related, and according to students, many of whom know or are related to involved parties, apparently retributive violence is in the works.

Sadly, it wasn't such a novel thing to them, for many of whom violence is a regular occurrence.  I work at a continuation school, and so the population is filled with students from poor, broken homes.  Most of the stories I'll never hear.  But from what I glean from classroom conversation, life is filled with drugs, sex and fighting, and law enforcement is never far off.

One of the biggest problems in teaching them is their abysmal rate of attendance.  In a class of 30, one day only 7 might decide to show up, and 23 the next.  Only a handful of students can be counted on to attend with any kind of regularity.  The school structure provides for this sort of problem; it has to.  A zero-tolerance policy would throw them all out onto the streets.  And for many, if not most, our school is a last-chance.

So we work with them.  It's a fine balance between keeping standards reasonably high and giving them work they have a chance of completing.  Many students have already almost given up, having fallen 2-3 years behind in credits.  Simply showing up is all they can often manage.  I sometimes find myself in dark admiration of their ability to spend hour after hour, day after day doing absolutely nothing in class.  But I suppose they've been in training for years.  Depression and stubborn, nihilistic rebellion is widespread.

They work independently for the most part.  Because of attendance and the constant ebb and flow of drop-ins and drop-outs, teaching a contiguous course isn't possible.  So each student has a list of assignments they must complete in order to pass the section and receive credits.  My job is to facilitate all of this, providing them the best education I can in such a flexible and inconsistent environment.  Much of my job ends up being mentor/counselor/motivational coach.  "Why," I'll ask amid a conversation between one student and another, "do you think it is OK to get drunk when you wake up in the morning?"  Or maybe I'll suggest a better way of resolving some particular conflict than physical assault.  In between helping them with individual questions, trying to engage them in some video or another, or explaining my expectations for a project, I try to create a safe, friendly atmosphere that inspires them with some small manner of joy and inspiration.

A recent email from the principle informed the teacher that administrators would be making the rounds next week, and visiting individual classrooms.  Explicit notice was given that we should be sure and have our "agendas and language objectives posted".

I don't discount the importance of either.  But considering the gravity of the situation in which we teach, in which our students live, these seem somewhat demeaning to the institution of education.  It strikes me as emblematic of the currently en vogue emphasis on the business-like nature of education, complete with endless talk of "data", myopic adherence to schemes of protocol, and the treatment children as widgets on a balance sheet.  A scripted calculation of whether this or that chart is posted on the wall seems entirely superfluous to the real needs of the students at the school.

These are students in crisis.  We have two counselors who, bless their hearts, do an amazing job of helping the students with their problems.  But there is only so much time in the day, and the practical nature of their job is that many students simply need to get schedules attended to, errors corrected, or plans for the future inventoried.  I look out into the eyes of my students and see tired, sad, bored and broken faces.  The practical nature of my job is that I can't be mentor or counselor to them all - certainly not in the individualized and attentive manner they deserve.  To use an analogy, I feel at times as though my job is like that of an old, rusty bottom rung of a ladder.  The students have slipped to the bottom and they can hold on with all their might or they can drop.  I can be there when they need me, but I can't catch them. 

And with every student that walks out the door to never return, another new tattooed, pierced and emotionally bruised young student walks in.  One of my current students was shot in the head.  But someone else's former student pulled the trigger.  If we had an extra $50K a year to hire a full-time psychological counselor would we be able to quantify the results?  Would our test scores improve?  Would drive-bys decrease?  Would the percentage of students smoking dope decrease?

If someone collected the data and did a study what would they find?  That we were simply throwing money at the problem?  I'd like to think that we wouldn't be.  When I'd take out my pad and write a hall-pass to a student who needed someone to talk to, maybe I'd be able to be more than just an old rung on a ladder.  In that moment maybe I would be a net, reaching out to catch them before they slip away.

At least for a little while longer.


  1. I don't know how you (or anyone) can sustain energy and a reasonable amount of optimism teaching in an environment like your school. I can only imagine the turnover in the faculty...I admire you so much for going in every day, and getting past the depressing reality of your students' circumstances to offer them some little amount of hope and inspiration. I guess you have to go in with the mentality of "If I can help just one student..."

  2. Dale shared this link with our school. It is a beautifully written piece, and I hear you. Your words make it a little easier for me to go into work.