Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tales from Factory High: Arisleyda

First year of teaching. Eleventh-grade English, non-Regents (this was the last year that kids could graduate from a New York City public school without taking the Regents. Instead, they took another exam that made sure you were able to read simple documents and write in whole sentences.)

End of the term. Two weeks left. Arisleyda shows up after having missed about 20 class sessions over the course of the (half-year) term. She is failing the class miserably. Now she has decided she really wants to pass. What does she have to do to pass?

This question puts teachers in a bind. On the one hand, it's unreasonable for a kid to skip classes all term and then decide, with two weeks left, that now they want to pass. If you give them an opportunity to pass, it sets a bad example for all the other kids who have been showing up (more or less) all term and doing their work.

On the other hand, if you tell the kid "there is no way you can pass. Forget it. You've cut 20 times and done no homework and it's too late now" then they'll just say "OK, then, see you in hell" and cut the rest of the sessions. After all, why should they show up and do work when they are going to fail the class anyway?

So what the teacher typically does is write out a "contract" with the student, listing what the student must do in the next two weeks in order to pass. The contents of the contract must be carefully considered. It must be enough work that they aren't "getting away" with something, yet not so much work that the kid knows she can't possibly do it.

So I wrote up a contract with Arisleyda that something like the following:

  • Show up to every single class from now on.
  • Do all assigned homework for every single class session.
  • Read a specific short novel and write a 2-page response to it.
  • Read 5 of the short stories in our anthology and answer every single question in the book about each story, including the essay questions.
  • Complete the exercises on 3 chapters in our vocabulary book.
  • Pass the final exam with at least a C+

Now, there was no way Arisleyda was going to do all that work in the next two weeks, but it's one of those situations where they say, at first, "Oh, thank you," and then make half-hearted attempts to do some of it, and show up to class a few more times, and then give up. Meanwhile you've kept them off the streets and learning something for a few days.

In Arisleyda's case, she skipped the next two classes. She violated the very first clause of the contract . . . and then had the chutzpah to come back and say she still wants to pass. At that point I told her "we had a contract, and you violated it, and so there is nothing more I can do for you." She pretended to cry and said that she'd missed classes because her brother was dying, and she is so stressed out, and please just let her pass.

I told her to sit down and do her work and we'd talk later. (Better to have her sitting in my class doing nothing than roaming the halls doing nothing.)

She went to her desk and continued to pretend to cry. It was such bad acting, that I actually caught her peeking at me through her fingers and, when she saw that I was looking at her, quickly close her fingers again over her eyes and pretend to sob. It was like something out of a dumb movie. The dramatics were unbelievably . . . badly executed. And everytime I passed by her desk she'd make an overwrought plea to pass her. It was sickening.

And then she made her fatal error. About ten minutes into the class she said "Oh, Miss ____, I'm so upset about my brother. I'm just going to jump out a window."

I see.

As the kids worked quietly at their desks, I made my way to the classroom door and stood in the open doorway, so that I could keep one eye on my students and one on the hall. When I saw Morris, the Assistant Principal for the English department, pass by, I motioned for him to come over.

"Morris," I whispered, "I have a student here who has missed a lot of classes . . . and now she says that she missed the last two days because her brother is dying . . . and she apparently is very distraught . . . and two minutes ago she told me that she is going to jump out a window."

There was a beat in which Morris studied my face and blinked for a moment, and then a gleam came into his eye.

"She said she's going to jump out a window?" he asked. "Those were her exact words?"

"Yes. Her exact words."

"Well. That sounds like a suicide threat to me.Which one is she?"

"The one by the window in the white t-shirt and denim jacket."

"I will take care of this. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Miss _____."

Arisleyda, of course, had been watching me talk to the AP, but was more than a little surprised when he came in and asked her to please come with him. The students know you don't mess with an AP, so she left. After that, the other kids, who had heard all of Arisleyda's "complaining" and knew something was going down, kept their noses in their books, let me tell you. Arisleyda's friend asked "why did he take her out of class? What is happening?" but I just said "That is between Arisleyda and Dr. Schulgasser. Get back to work."

I later found out that Morris had followed protocol. He'd taken Arisleyda down to her guidance counselor and explained that Arisleyda had threatened to jump out a window. The guidance counselor in turn had followed protocol by calling in Arisleyda's mother and an ambulance.

Arisleyda had been taken by ambulance to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital, screaming all the way that she "didn't really mean it!"

Morris reported this to me in his typical professional manner. I had done the right thing. When a child threatens to cause herself bodily harm, the teacher must report it. Had I not reported it and the child had indeed hurt herself, I would have been in deep trouble. Once I reported it, Morris, the guidance counselor, and the EMTs had each done their jobs.

But Morris definitely had a gleam in his eye as he reported the outcome.

I never saw Arisleyda again. I feel a little bad that hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars worth of man hours had been wasted on her by Morris, the guidance counselor, her mother, the EMT's, the triage nurse at the hospital, the doctors there, etc.

On the other hand, that kid sooooo had it coming. And you know, we have to follow the protocol.


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