This summer, I am teaching in a special program for at-risk high school students at a local community college. These students are failing high school. They have GPAs ranging from .50 to 2.0 (most of ‘em hovering at or below 1.0) and are missing units. They hate high school. They have spent the majority of their schooling years disaffected and turned off. Some of them have never even learned how to learn. Yet they are all smart.
Fifty students applied for this program which requires them to attend school Monday-Friday, 9-2, and take courses in English, Math, Career, Study Skills, and Video Production (that’s the carrot). We have room for only 30 students, so they must convince us they are serious – that they want to turn their academic lives around. Even then, it’s not easy. We and they cannot undo in 6 weeks time a lifetime of poor learning habits. And most of them believe they cannot succeed – their history tells them so.
These students don’t know how to behave in the classroom – any classroom, and they are puzzled by the “college approach.” I run my class similar to a graduate-level seminar – we sit in not rows, but circles or horseshoes, so we can all see each other. I ask students to call me by my first name, and I don’t require them to raise their hands to speak. They are allowed to leave the classroom without asking permission. They are baffled by this approach in many ways, but also revel in it (some leave too often, some interrupt each other when speaking). We discuss classroom etiquette and protocol. They dig that too.
These students get under my skin. They are smart, scared, defensive, immature. They come up from behind and give me hugs, or cover my eyes, waiting for me to guess who they are. They make snide remarks one moment, then gestures of appreciation the next. They are astounded when I don’t answer their questions, but instead ask them, “Well, what do you think?” They offer their opinions with great conviction, then back down and ask me if their opinions are right. They howl with frustration when I tell them it’s not a matter of whether I think they are right or wrong, it’s a question of whether they can support their opinion with reason. “But we want to know if we’re right!”
I want to hug them (which I do) and whack them upside their heads (which I don’t) all at the same time. I tell them so too, in so many words:
“Hey, Mario, does your mother ever whup you upside your head?” I ask.
“How did you know?” he exclaims. I only smile. He blushes, then laughs.
One student in particular has been troubling me lately. He is short and stocky. Wears his hair slicked back with gel and a net over the top to make it lay flat. At 17 he works close to 30 hours a week - nights in a warehouse - and he contributes most of his pay check to his family. He bears this responsibility with pride. And with worry. He knows his work interferes with his studies. He knows he is far behind. But there are younger brothers and sisters coming up behind him. His family needs his pay check, needs him to work. He needs it too – it elevates him, makes him somebody. He helps support his family and this is no small thing.
He is but a youngster himself in many ways. Afraid to ask for help. Afraid to appear weak. He is not doing well in my class, yet he as never, not once, said he didn’t understand something or asked for help.
I ask him why; he shrugs. “Just can’t – it’s weak.” I ask him if not having help is working for him and he stares at me, as though that is irrelevant. Of course it’s not working for him, but in his world, there is nothing else he can do.
He is trying to get some of his homework done in the Learning Center and is working at a computer near my desk. I notice how slowly he is typing out his essay. He pecks and pecks. He has written only a few sentences in just about 10 minutes. I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t know what to write, or has nothing to say. He’s talked through this essay with me in class. He has plenty to say. Watching him, I realize why I haven’t received any of the typed assignments from him – he can’t type. And his peck and hunt style so slows him down, he can’t write.
He may not be college-bound; the odds right now are against it. He merely wants to get out of high school with his diploma. He knows he can make more money with a high school diploma than without. I wonder why he hasn’t taken keyboarding at high school. His high school teachers require essays to be typed and in my regular college classes, I won’t accept untyped assignments. But this is not regular college. A lot of people, including this young man, are working hard to just get this kid through high school. Is it possible that he will fail simply because he can’t type?
“Wow,” I comment. “You type pretty slow.”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a pain in the ass.”
“I can see that.”
“So I’m figuring, this is why I haven’t received any work from you. It’s pretty tough to type.”
“I’ve got all the handwritten homework from you.”
“Yeah, that was quicker to do. See, this takes forever.” He throws up his hands in the air. It’s not a gesture of despair, or a plea for help – it’s more a gesture of “see how this is.” He sets his hands back down again and begins to hunt and peck.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I ask. “Why didn’t you ask for help?
He gives me a look. I know it well. My son gives me that look sometimes. It’s the look that says: we’ve covered this ground before. How can I ask you for help, when I’m suppose to be a man – and able to do this on my own?
Ah, the struggle of adolescence. That desire to be independent – to prove you can handle whatever comes along – even though you can’t, even though no one expects you to. Takes a long time to figure out it’s ok to ask for help.
“Think you could write that essay by hand?” I ask.
“Yeah. That’d be a lot easier.”
“So why don’t you?”
“Cause it’s suppose to be typed.” I'm astounded by this answer. His willingness to follow instructions and his inability to ask for help have led him astray – trapped him into a place from which there is no successful way out - all because he is trying to do what he's been told to do, what's been asked of him.
I pause. “Screw that.” I say. His eyes open wide. His teacher just said, “screw that.”
“Write it out by hand. Put it in my mailbox by tomorrow morning. Can you do that?”
“Hell yeah, I can do that.”
“Then do it.”
I turn back to my own work. He pulls out paper and pencil and starts writing. He writes for about 15 minutes, then lean backs in his chair, reads his work, then starts to write again. I pack up to leave and he’s still writing. I walk out of the Learning Center and look back over my shoulder. He’s still writing. I know in the morning, that essay will be waiting for me in my mailbox.
This felt like a good teaching day. I hope it was a good learning day too.