Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor. Truman Capote, writer
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan, NBA star in the 1990s
I want to tell you about three high school students I have taught. While the 2020s are surely different than the 1950s through mid-1970s when I taught high school, I believe that there is much in the core nature of children and youth and the public school experience that is stable over time. If readers do not share that belief, they may have a hard time with this series of posts.
First, Harold. Lanky, always stylishly dressed and so clever, he drove me up my four classroom 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 statements 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 stereotyping him as a Pain-in-the-Ass Student. Did he learn anything from me as a person or teacher from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I simply don’t know. Then there was William who I take up in Part 2.