Harold, William, Victor, and Me (Part 1)

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.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

22 responses to “Harold, William, Victor, and Me (Part 1)

  1. You didn’t fail William. You engaged him on a level that most probably wouldn’t. What’s more you did it in a respectful way which I’m sure most wouldn’t.

  2. I cannot see how you failed either. At some age a person has to become responsible for themselves. Some societies it is 16, in the US it seems that age is in the early 30s if ever. At 18 students are old enough to make decisions that shape their lives. Both seem to have made those decisions. You ensured they were not making those decisions in a vacuum. Success.

  3. Larry,
    I’m eager to read the next post and see where you’re going with this. It reminds me of a photo a student gave me that’s hanging on the wall above my desk. It’s a picture of me and one of the students in the first 9th grade class of the school where I was founding principal. The student and I spoke daily and I made a point of keeping tabs on her – asking her and her teachers how she was doing, communicating with her family, calling her if she was absent, etc. Late in 11th grade, after she turned 18, she disappeared from school and moved away from home suddenly. I heard rumors from her friends about what happened and I knew the family situation was a bit tumultuous so the stories made some sense. I never saw her again but have kept that photo there as a reminder of one that I/we failed – alongside a photo of our first graduating class I should add. It wasn’t from a lack of trying on our part and we sure cared a lot about her but I’ve always felt it was important for us to remember her alongside our many successes.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Joe, for your account of the one student and the photo that you have kept. There are many successes, as you point out, but there are also too many kids that slip through the cracks even with our best, and repeated efforts.

  4. Art

    I think I understand the attitudes/emotions behind your feeling that you failed, Larry, but I think you are wrong. It seems to me that you did your best and certainly helped these kids.
    Since I started teaching in 1968, one of the growing problems in education is the increasing belief that every student is going to get a good job, make lots of money, and have a ‘good life’. These are certainly what every parent and every teacher wants for every student but get real: that is not the way of the world! For a multitude of reasons, many if not most out of control of the school and the teacher, some kids do very well and some don’t. If we as a nation\culture focused more on all groups in the education world trying their best and much less time on blaming each other when not everyone became a Rhodes Scholar, the end result for individuals and the nation would be much more positive. So many times ‘the perfect has become the enemy of good’.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment. Let me know what you think after reading Part 2 of “Harold, William, Victor, and Me.”

  5. Cal

    I agree that you failed Harold–literally, of course, but also in the sense you offer it.

    You may have done some of the things I’ll mention here; I’m just listing some potential I see for change in what you did write about.

    I actually go through “what to do if you’re late” procedures in my classes. My basic rule is this: if you’re late once in a while, no big. If you’re late all the time, I’ll mark you tardy and go through whatever procedures the school requires me to do. The reality is, however, that I don’t care if you’re late. But you will by god not disrupt my class if you are. You walk in, you genuflect quietly to me, you get to your seat, you get materials without disruption if needed, and you don’t make your lateness my fault. In low ability classes, I actually have a rowdy kid leave the room, model coming in quietly with a genuflection, and it works. So if Harold were late all the time, the issue would *not* be his tardiness, but his behavior–and that is often easier to change. And if he did disrupt class after violating my procedures, I’d have solid grounds for referrals–again, which would likely get him to change.

    I’d figure out how to shut him down in class when he’s misbehaving or sucking all the energy out of the room during the discussion, which might involve making him feel foolish if he didn’t take my hints.

    If he was bright and knew the material, I’d figure out a way for him to show it, pass him, and forget the rest. All the stuff he’s doing that’s wrong, yeah, whatever.

    Education is forced on kids. Some of them don’t want it. If I’m failing a kid with stronger skills than one I’m passing, then I’m lying.

    All students, at heart, understand that passing is better than not passing. All I have to do is give them a face-saving way to pass. For kids like Harold, that might be the most I can do. It doesn’t mean I don’t try to do more.

    I’m not sure about William, but my sense is you didn’t fail him. You didn’t try to talk him out of his beliefs. He will remember you as someone who didn’t ridicule him, and had the time to listen to him. I’m not sure anything else would have been possible.

    Many teachers see education as a moral issue, one in which they expect their students to adopt their own values, and they often find it hard to refrain from condemning those who don’t share their values. Even their efforts not to judge are actually an attempt to co-opt the student into “proper” values by the initial acceptance (‘look, I accept you! Now show your gratitude by working hard/changing your unacceptable opinions/showing up on time!”).

    I do not see education as a moral issue, and I’ve found this approach has allowed me to keep many marginal kids hanging on to school. However, I’ve certainly felt I’ve failed students who felt I had no interest in them, and have worked hard over the years to soften my manner when interacting with them.

    • larrycuban

      I sure wish I had had a larger repertoire of ways of dealing with Harold. What you suggested makes a great deal of sense and probably would have handled his disruptions better than I did then. I do appreciate that you picked up on my not being up to the task of dealing with him then in ways that might have settled him down and help him pass U.S. history. Thanks.

  6. Cal

    I want to clarify–in no way did I mean to be critical. It’s clear that you were (and are) an excellent teacher. I just meant to agree with your sense of defeat, the feeling that Harold might have been reached.

  7. David

    Larry, you are a perfectionist, and have been for all the years I’ve known you. It is painful when we cannot reach certain students, and that happens all the way through graduate school. I don’t think failure is black-and-white, though, and we never know how long conversations with students in their teens are ultimately processed. I believe that a great deal of the disconnect that happens with students at various stages in their education has to do with perspective. Harold and William had vastly different perspectives from yours when you knew them, but my bet is that you influenced how their perspectives developed over time. I’ve had many students in graduate school who were teachers wanting to become administrators. Attitudes toward course work were sometimes negative and driven by the habits of mind from a teacher’s perspective that did not always consider the whole school. We’ve all had students who fought us tooth and nail in the classroom, only to come back later to indicate that they changed their minds as a result of the experience. I suppose that much of what we do is based on faith that what happens in the classroom and around it matters.

    • larrycuban


      I have been called many things over the years, but never a perfectionist. Thanks for your comments. I do agree with how little we truly know about the influence for good, ill, and nil, that we have with students over the years.

  8. Pingback: Harold, William, Victor, and Me (Part 1) | Comm...

  9. Pingback: Why teachers can’t reach every child: a case study

  10. Tim

    Thank you for sharing such thoughtful reflections, Larry. I have a “Harold” in my seventh grade classroom right now. He fits your description almost to a T. Your post and others’ comments have given me a lot to think about. I have made some progress with him, but I am always hoping to avoid the feeling that I failed him at the end of the year. Thanks again . . . I think all teachers could benefit from writing about students they have failed. We all have them, no matter how good we are.

  11. Reblogged this on Teaching for Justice and commented:
    This is a powerful blog post by Larry Cuban that is all too true. As teachers, we can only do as much as we can with the resources we have. We need to take care of ourselves before we can ever hope to help others. It is a stressful job, and it is all too easy to burn out. This is especially true if you are new to the profession.

  12. Pingback: Ties That Bind Teachers and Physicians | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s