Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Neverending Saga

I was going to write a quick, chipper end-of-term post today. Winter term ends tomorrow, we're in the midst of testing (and it's going well), and the kids and I are getting ready for a trip to visit good friends in California. I'm checking things off the to do list and feeling pretty competent.

But when I arrived at work tonight I was met with the very grim face of our Russian speaking resource specialist. While I focus on teaching, her job is to recruit and enroll new students, keep an eye on them while they're enrolled and help with any issues that may arise. She just informed me that New Man (expelled from our program for the second time in February) has been arrested and a couple of his friends (current students in the program) have been called in for questioning. No one seems to know what the charge is but given his volatility I wouldn't be surprised if there was a fight and someone got hurt. He was drunk and got into a fight which was recorded on surveillance cameras.

I know there wasn't much I could do for this kid, at least not without the rest of my students suffering, but I am beside myself tonight, playing the what-if game, and feeling really, really low. Because if I were a good teacher, I could have turned this kid around, right?


Anonymous said...

My mom has taught public elementary school for more than 20 years. At her first school, her student population was about 80% Southeast Asian, mostly very poor Cambodians with unemployed, unemployable, non-English speaking refugee parents. But she loved and adored her kids, and many of them loved her back... including Sovoeun, a troubled little boy with an alcoholic father, silent and (we think) abused mother and five or six other siblings all crammed into a two-bedroom project apartment.

For years after he was in my mom's second grade class, Sovoeun would show up once or twice a year on our doorstep, always unannounced, to check in with my mom and let her know how he was doing. As he got older, he started wearing the red bandanas and sagging pants that most of the other Southeast Asian gangsters in the area sported. He dropped out of school when he was fifteen, but still kept coming by. The last time my mom saw him, he was seventeen, and he showed up with his silent (and possibly abused) girlfriend and newborn baby girl in tow. A few months later, he was sent to real jail (not a youth halfway house) for the first time for his involvement in a car-theft ring. He's been in and out of prison ever since, and my mom doesn't hear from him anymore.

I guess I just wanted to let you know that sometimes one person (or a couple of people) caring about someone else isn't enough to rescue them... as much as we might like to be, we can't always be there looking over other people's shoulders and monitoring what they do. And ultimately, though we do what we can to provide a positive and supportive environment, the final choice to engage in self-destructive behavior lies with the individual.

I know how much you cared about New Man, despite all his troublesomeness. I'm sorry to hear about his problems, and am hopeful that maybe a real brush with the real law will help set him straight (not that our criminal justice system has the greatest track record in that regard).

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


You can do your best, but you can only help a student that is ready to be helped. I guess New Man was not ready.

It's too bad, really, that life is not the movies. I go through the same self-questioning process every time I see one of my former students on the news for the wrong reasons. Fortunately, it doesn't happen very often, or I'd be a complete basket case.

beth h said...

"Because if I were a good teacher, I could have turned this kid around, right?"

Uh, no. Actually, the best teachers can only help the kids who are ready to stay in their class. The romantic image of the teacher who goes to the student's home and somehow plucks the sad student out of his Bad Situation is not only a lie, but is now considered a legal liability in most states.

When I taught marching band in Portland's poorest high school fifteen years ago, it was like pulling teeth to get the kids to participate or to speak up about anything at all. The band director was a non-factor; he'd given up years before and left me alone to do my thing while he quietly sipped from a flask in his office. I managed to get some results (i.e., kids practicing and working together so that they actually pulled off a performance that even they felt good about). They marched in a community parade and got polite applause; the community was almost as tough to reach as the kids.

In the end it was just too hard to fight all that history and anger. By the end of that first semester, my drumline of 15 had shrunk to 9; the others had either dropped out of school or gone to Juvvie for this or that. A couple of them had joined a notorious gang and were now working as drug runners. The remaining kids worked as hard as they could but you could feel the growing defeat in the band room every week. By the middle of the second semester the drumline was down to 5 kids.

The day after the spring concert I was asked to leave. It was determined that my presence (as a white woman coaching mostly black boys) was seen as "problematic". I was advised by the assistant principal to "save your talent and care for the suburban kids who probably deserve it more. These guys are f---ing animals. Most of them will be dead or in jail before long."

It was the saddest day in my teaching career. And yet, having spent a number of years teaching in the suburbs, I actually miss working with those inner-city drummers. No spoiled prima donnas, they were tough and also tenacious, and when they realized they could do something good together they actually made strides.

So... not this student, not this time. But maybe someone else, down the road. Teachers can make a difference in the classroom for the students who want to be taught.

Elizabeth said...

Who is to say that you did not help him? I think any time care and devotion is put into a person, it is not mis-spent. He has other influences in his life besides you, however, and those influences have won out--for now. But that's not necessarily the end of the story.

I know it's frustrating. I'm sorry for your despair and I hope it won't keep you down too long, but it's a sign of your caring that it gets to you.