I want to tell you about three high school students I have taught.
First, Harold. Lanky, always stylishly dressed and so clever, he drove me up one of my four walls. Harold was 19 and in the 11th grade. He had failed all of his subjects the year before he entered my U.S. history class. Yet he scored above national norms on college board exams.
Harold was never, and I mean, never on time to class, that is, when he chose to come to class. About five minutes after the bell, he would bang through the rear door of the room, clip-clop over to his seat. Passing a friend, he would lean over, hand cupped to his mouth and whisper something. Anyone in earshot would laugh uproariously. Harold had arrived. Another lesson interrupted.
Whenever the class got into meaty discussions with students interacting over ideas raised in the lesson, Harold was superb in his insights and arguing skills. He used evidence to back up his words without any encouragement from me. He revealed a sharp, inquiring mind.
But this did not happen often. What happened most of the time was that Harold would wisecrack, twist what people say, or simply beat a point to death. When that occurred, class discussion swirled around him. He loved that. He was frequently funny and delivered marvelous gag lines impromptu. In short, within the first few weeks of this class, he had settled into a comfortable role of wise buffoon. He knew precisely how to psyche teachers and how far he could go with each one.
I’m unsure how the class perceived him. When students worked in groups, no one chose to work with Harold. When I selected group members, the one he was in quickly fragmented and he would ask to work independently. On a number of occasions during class discussions, other students would tell him to shut up. I suspect that his fellow students liked him as a clown as much as he needed to act as one.
I grew to dislike Harold’s behavior intensely while trying hard not to dislike him. It was tough. I tried to deal with his wise buffoon role through after-class conferences and calls to his home with short conversations with his parent. If he would come to class after these conferences and phone calls, his intelligence would shine as he contributed to class discussions. Time after time, however, he would back-slide. He would keep up with assignments for a week or two then do nothing for a month. He would cut class and when we would see one another in the hallway the same day, we would wave and say hello to one another.
The necessary time and energy for Harold considering one hundred-plus other students, I just didn’t have. In the last three weeks of the semester, when his class-busting behavior crossed my last threshold, I told him that every time he was late, he would spend the period in the library working independently. It was a solution that satisfied him since he would make a dramatic tardy entrance, I would give him the thumb, he would turn, salute me, and exit. It quickly became a ritual that I had locked myself into. And that is how the semester ended.
Due to his sporadic attendance, missed tests and assignments–and I searched my conscience to separate pique from fairness–I gave Harold a failing grade.
But I failed also. I could not reach Harold. He continued to stereotype me as the Teacher and I slipped into perceiving him as a stereotyped pain-in-the-ass Student. Did he learn anything from me as a person or from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I simply don’t know.
William was quiet in class. Kept back twice in elementary school, the school psychologist diagnosed him as “below-average” in tested intelligence but did not find any intellectual or emotional disabilities. Now, 18 years of age, he was in the 11th grade and earning As and Bs in his courses, including mine, and looking forward to graduating high school.
After school one day–he would also come in to my room to talk while I was eating lunch–we engaged in a long conversation about his future. I asked about college and he shook his head, saying “No.” He had once wanted to be a engineer but now he had given up that idea. His father had encouraged him to go to college also as I had but now, according to William, it was out of the question.
Why? I asked.
Turns out that William was a member of a religious group that believed Armageddon would occur sooner rather than later and that God would only save those who accepted Jesus Christ as the Savior. He was a recent convert to the group and a true believer in the imminent end-of-the world.
Before school, during lunch, and after school, we would discuss both his and my religious beliefs. He brought in pamphlets from his group. We would discuss them often returning to the question of his continuing his schooling. When our conversation would go that way, William would smile and, as if he were dealing with a very slow teacher, politely explain to me that he believed life as we know it will end in a holocaust of earthquakes, fires, and hailstorms. The Bible foretold it and it could occur as soon as the end of the decade. Since there would be few survivors, he had to prepare himself for what would occur. To attend college would be foolish. Given his beliefs, he was right.
I admired William for his staunch beliefs even when, without a blink of his eye, he said I and my family would die in the fire to come because we were unbelievers. I took him as seriously as he took himself.
In a high school of 1500, he identified one person as a friend. More than once, he told me, his beliefs had become the butt of jokes in classes and among other students. Much of his time outside of school was spent in studying, attending meetings at his church, and, on weekends, doing street ministry work.
In class, William would participate often in discussions, do his assignments and perform well on tests. Whenever the class worked independently on short research papers or contracts, he did especially well. He received a B+.
I guess by conventional criteria, I was effective with William (e.g., did assignments, got high scores on tests, participated in class discussions). He seemed to have learned content and skills from me as a history teacher. The question I have, however, is what did William learn from me as a person in the many hours of talking during the semester?
I can say that in one sense, I failed William. Why I failed, I am unsure. If a teacher is to get students to examine their values, clarify them while they are being examined, then I was unsuccessful. My job, as I saw it, was not to dismantle his beliefs but to get him to reflect on them. He surely got me to do so by throwing my questions back at me. But I had gone through that process–and still do. He hurled my questions back at me to defend himself. I sensed this and chose not to continue that line of questioning. So I believe that I failed William.
Part 2 takes up Victor’s story and the reasons I have written about my failures with particular students.