Monday, February 13, 2006

Tales from the Blackboard Factory: Jeremy

Inspired by Orthomom's post about a New York City employee who was fired by Mayor Bloomberg because he had a solitaire game up on his screen, I've decided to share an anecdote from my teaching days in the Bronx about another person who was almost made into "an example."

My second year of teaching, I was lucky enough to be assigned two sections of Honors-level 9th grade English for kids who were in a special program -- they'd been accepted on the basis of their reading and math scores on standardized tests.

As you can imagine, the honors sections were a special joy to teach, because those kids were actually functioning on grade level and were motivated to do well because they didn't want to be kicked out of their program. This doesn't mean that all of them were geniuses or that I never had any discipline issues with them, but generally the kids did their work and did it well. I rarely had any dramatic problems with them.

One of those kids was Jeremy, a friendly kid who sat smack in the middle of the room and had a little bit of a hard time concentrating. He sometimes spaced out while I was giving instructions, but he was so guileless and relaxed that it was hard to be angry with him. Unfortunately, he did not always do his homework, so his average was around a 75, even though he was capable of doing better. I never called his house because he was passing the class by a wide margin and never caused any particular problems. He was just coasting, you know? I found out in the middle of the year that he lived with his grandparents because his father was in jail and his mother was in a nursing home with a debilitating neurological problem. I felt bad for him but admired that he was functioning as well as he was - and usually with a smile.

Toward the end of the year, all my honors students were working on an independent reading project in which they got to choose any book they wanted off a list I gave them, keep a reading diary which I checked every few days, and write a five-paragraph typed thesis essay at the end.

At this point, Jeremy suddenly decided that he did not want to finish the year with a 75 on his transcript in English. He wanted to earn an A in the class. He approached me about doing extra credit work -- such as reading a second book from the list and writing another essay about it. I told him "Look, Jeremy, you are welcome to do extra credit, and certainly if you do another book project (well) I will raise your grade. But after a whole year of doing C work, you can't suddenly get an A for the class because of one extra book project. If you get A's on both projects, you'll probably get an 80, but really, you should have thought of this in October or November."

Jeremy was very determined to get an A, though. He said "What if I do 10 reading projects between now and the end of the year?" I said "Jeremy, there are only about 2 weeks left to the class. How can you possibly read 10 books and write a thesis essay about every one? This isn't your only class. You have other work to do" He said "I really want to do this. If I read 10 books and write 10 essays, will you give me an A?" I thought about it and, wanting to encourage him to do whatever extra reading and writing he could squeeze in, answered "I'll give you extra credit for whatever projects you do well, and if you do 10 of them well, I'll give you an A for the class." I never thought he'd do it, see? I figured he'd read another 2 books or maybe 3, get a B or so for the class, and that would be it.

About a week and a half later, Jeremy arrived at my class and proudly placed ten neatly-typed essays on my desk. I was amazed and congratulated him, saying I looked forward to reading them and congratulating him on his effort.

When I went home that night and started reading Jeremy's work, I realized that I had every right to be amazed, because there was no way that Jeremy had written these essays. These essays were perfect. The sentence structure was perfect, the vocabulary was advanced -- way too advanced -- and the concepts were very sophisticated -- way too sophisticated. Jeremy apparently had not thought about the fact that I had been evaluating his writing all year and could recognize such a miraculous leap in skills for what it was: an impossibility.

But I knew that if I simply confront him about cheating, he'd argue that yes he had written them, and I had no proof, and we had a deal, blah blah blah.

So the next day I told Jeremy to meet me in the English office during his lunch period. I told him that I was going to give him another opportunity to earn an A (I am so mean). When he got there, I gave him a piece of paper and said "I am going to read to you 10 vocabulary words. I pulled them out of the papers you submitted. If you can correctly spell and use each of these words properly in a sentence, you will automatically get an A+ for the class, no questions asked." He was psyched.

I started reading off words. Words from his papers. Ubiquitous. Meritricious. Quotidian. Sartorial. Normative. Antiquated. Obsequious. You get the picture.

The more words I read, the more Jeremy's head got closer to the table, until it was comletely hidden in the crook of his elbow. He was busted. A senior teacher who had been quietly grading papers at the same table pointedly did not look at us, but she was smirking.

I asked Jeremy who had written the papers, and he mumbled "My uncle helped me." I said "he helped you, or he wrote them for you?" Jeremy didn't answer. I sighed. I explained to him that cheating is a very serious offense, that there was of course no way I would include any of these papers in his grade, and that I had no choice but to report his behavior to the head of the honors program, who would decide with me how to proceed. Jeremy said "yes, ma'am" and walked out of the office, his head hanging low.

I called down to the Honors office and spoke with the head of the program, a woman for whom I had a great deal of respect. We agreed that Jeremy should definitely be made to understand that he can't get away with this, but since it was his first offense and he had never caused trouble of any kind before, we'd just make him sweat for a while and then let him go. She said that she'd give him a really scary talk and threaten to kick him out of the Honors program, but then tell him the next day she'd decided to give him one more chance and he'd better not pull a stunt like this ever again if he wanted to stay in Honors.

The next day, Jeremy came into my class, put his head down on his desk, pulled the hood of his jacket over his face, and stayed like that for the rest of the class. It was no secret to the other kids what had happened and everyone left him alone to his misery.

That afternoon, I found a note in my mailbox, from Jeremy. It said, basically, "Dear Miss ______, Because of you, I might be kicked out of the Honors program, even though I've never done anything bad before. You fucking bitch. Signed, Jeremy."

Hm. Uh oh.

I did two things. I wrote a note at the bottom of his note, to the effect of "Jeremy, I am sure you wrote this out of anger, and it is because you have never caused trouble before that I will pretend this note never happened. I recommend that you think more carefully before sending a note like this to a teacher in the future."

I then photocopied that paper and left a copy for the head of Honors, with another note attached saying "this is self-explanatory. I felt you should have a copy for your records, in case Jeremy ever does cause problems again after he has moved on from my class."

The next morning, Jeremy cut my class.

The day after that, there was quite a buzz among the first-period honors students. A lot of whispering and glancing at me and a sort of sad, morose atmosphere. I asked what was going on, and they said "Jeremy might be expelled from the school. The Honors head gave his note to the principal, and now the principal wants to expel him because of what he called you in his note."

Oh, God, you have to be kidding.

So during my lunch break I went down to the principal's office and politely asked him what was going on. He said that he was sick of the language kids were using with teachers, that to curse at a teacher -- in writing, no less -- was inexcusable, and he was going to make an example out of this kid, zero tolerance, blah blah blah.

I said "Look, G., I understand that you want to improve the atmosphere in the building, but don't make an example out of this kid. You have kids skipping 2 weeks of school, beating up substitutes, and setting the building on fire. Jeremy has never caused any trouble before. He comes to school every day, is passing all his classes, and until now has been a normal, friendly kid. He's not a trouble-maker. He's a normal kid who made a really really stupid mistake. Come on, don't do this."

G. said that he'd "take our conversation under advisement" and I left.

The next day, Jeremy was in my class again, but once again kept his hood over his face. However, the other kids were doing excited whispering and glancing at me and looking at me with a little bit of awe. I found out later that the Honors head had called Jeremy into her office and said, in as many words "Miss ____, of all people, came to your rescue. After what you called her, she spent her lunch period advocating for you to the principal, and convinced him to let you stay in the school. You can even stay in the Honors program. But just you remember, kid, that Miss ____ has more class in her pinky than you do in your entire body, and if you have any brains you'll kiss her feet from now on. Now get out of here." Word had spread like wildfire among his classmates that "Miss _____ saved Jeremy," and for about 48 hours there I was a hero to about 50 ninth graders.

The last day of school, after saying goodbye to those students who had shown up and packing up my stuff, I was walking through the almost-empty halls to go home, when I saw some of my Honors kids hauling Jeremy toward me and saying "Go on, go talk to her."

Jeremy came over to me and, tears streaming down his face, said "Miss ____, I'm s-so s-sorry. I was so m-mean to you and y-you saved my ass. P-please forgive me."

I told Jeremy that I forgive him, and made him shake hands and stand up straight. We all knew I wasn't coming back the next year and I might never see him again. I gave him a hug and said "promise you'll be good," and he said "I promise," and I walked outside.

No comments:

Post a Comment