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The 5 People I Didn’t Meet in High School

April 30, 2014

Okay, who am I kidding? If there’s one thing I have learned from spending the last four months teaching in a public high school, it’s that there are way more than five types of students. It’s really a grab-bag out there, with the future Presidents, models, car salesmen, and hobos all rubbing shoulders in the slightly cramped and run-down hallways of our schools. I’ve actually come to see my school’s diversity as a really beautiful thing, as challenging and crazy as it may make it to teach there. A public school being a vast and diverse place is not news—it’s a well-known fact. Yet, for me, the past four months have been one huge realization, not just about schools in general, but about the school I attended and loved for four years.

Seven years ago I graduated from the same high school where I now student-teach, and to 18-year-old me, that school was a pretty small place. There might have been five types of people I met there, but they all took AP classes and filled their extra hours with sports and music lessons. Yes, we came from families of slightly different socio-economic backgrounds, we had varying interests. Sometimes our religious and political views were in drastic contrast. But we had all the important things in common: a work ethic, plans for our bright futures, three square meals a day that didn’t come from tax-payer money, you know. Those things.

The thing about a student’s day is that it follows a very set pattern. They usually get to school at the same time, take the same route from class to class, and sit at the same lunch table with the same people. I was no different, but what I now see is that my insulated path around the school completely bypassed whole wings of the building, whole segments of the student population. I was there almost every day, but there was so much I missed.

breakfast clubAs a teacher, I’m getting the bird’s eye view I never had as a student. It’s like looking at an ant farm from the outside—you can see everyone and how they function, but the individual ants can only see the tunnel in front of them. I know now that when my privileged bum vacated that desk, an under-privileged one probably filled it, and that person’s high school experience was vastly different from my own. I realize now that most of my teachers didn’t spend all day having deep discussions with their AP kids—when we left the room they had to try and teach upper-classmen how to read, coax those in the grip of gangs and poverty to complete the simplest of daily tasks, and write people up for cursing to their faces.

And so, even though in my own school alone I’ve discovered a plethora of individuals with strengths, weaknesses, worldviews, and needs that I never knew existed, here are just five of them—five people I was too self-absorbed to notice then, but I have definitely noticed now.

 

  1. The kid who is literally too poor to do homework.

I’m used to hearing a lot of excuses about why little Jimmy couldn’t manage to finish his homework, and usually I’m pretty skeptical. However, I currently have a student in class who has no computer or internet access at home, which makes it pretty tough to work on the research project I just assigned or type up her essay. Go to the public library, I said. Well, her mom doesn’t have a car, so she’d have to take the bus. It’s not an insurmountable challenge, and it won’t get her out of doing her work, but it’s still a glimpse of a world I couldn’t even have imagined when I was 14. The same kid has also mentioned that she might miss some school later this week because her mom couldn’t pay the power bill, and their electricity is getting shut off. She doesn’t want to come to school without a hot shower, and I can’t really blame her.

 

  1. The kid who hates to learn.

When I was in school, I spent my fair share of time complaining about homework or boring assignments, and my friends and I all had subjects that weren’t our favorites. But we weren’t anti-learning. However, I have several students who act as if they’ve absolutely never met an assignment that was worthwhile. Whatever I ask of them, it’s a burden. It’s “lame.” It’s entirely too much effort. And worse, when you try to engage with them and ask them what they’ve learned, they give you attitude. Like, how dare you expect that I might actually learn something? I’m only here because I have to be. This type of kid will mouth off or act up when you point out (even in the nicest way) that they’re doing something wrong. They act like your help is offensive and they’ve got it covered, while simultaneously demonstrating their own ignorance every step of the way. It’s infuriating, and of course the ones they’re truly hurting with that attitude are themselves.

 

  1. The mentally retarded and/or mentally ill kid

Unfortunately there are quite a few kids in the public schools these days with mental troubles greater than those a teacher is really qualified to deal with. This can take many forms. Sometimes they have a label, like Autistic or Oppositional Defiance Disorder, and sometimes there’s just something not right in their head. Recently, my mentor teacher mentioned that she thought one of our low-achieving students might be mentally ill. The thought had never occurred to me, but once she said it, his odd behavior, inability to focus, and consistently bad choices started to make more sense. The problem is, even if it makes sense, that doesn’t help us deal with the issues stemming from these mental problems. We aren’t trained as doctors or therapists, which makes it pretty overwhelming to try and help these kids.

 

  1. The drug dealing gang-banger

When I was in school, my parents warned me about “bad” kids who would try to sell me drugs, but to me they were about as real as trolls that live under bridges. To my knowledge, I never saw a drug deal go down, nor did anyone ever offer me drugs. I saw kids smoking cigarettes at the edge of the parking lot each morning, but never did I suspect they might be using substances harder than tobacco. I was blissfully naïve, just sheltered from those kinds of people. Now I know they really did exist, and still do, especially since marijuana is now legal in our state. There are multiple boys in my class who talk about vague sources of income and who regularly have their backpacks checked by school administrators. They’re known dealers, plain and simple, and their academic performance tends to match up with their chosen career path. All I can say is that I hope a life of crime turns out to be as lucrative and fulfilling as they seem to think it will be…but the logical part of me knows the majority of these kids will end up in prison within the next few years.

 

  1. The kid who is already gone

I teach freshmen, which means they should be relatively innocent and still have high hopes for their futures. However, I’ve met a few freshmen who, by the end of their first semester in high school, had already given up on the idea of graduating. They failed every class and didn’t seem at all concerned. Why try to right the ship when drowning was their plan to begin with? One particularly exasperating student does almost no work in class because he, “doesn’t F-ing care about school,” and has made it clear he’s only there for the free breakfast and lunch everyday. He intends to drop out as soon as he’s 16 and legally able to do so, and he doesn’t care who knows it. This student’s performance and attitude are so poor that my mentor teacher has told me repeatedly not to waste any more time coaxing him. It’s sad to say we’ve given up too, but why should I give my time and effort to someone like him, when there are 29 others in the room who are still trying? From what he’s said, I suspect he’s involved in the trade described in #4, and I can already tell that won’t end well for him. When people give statistics about the maddeningly high percentage of young black men in the prisons or killed by homicide, this kid’s face always comes to mind. Is there really nothing I can do to stop it?

 

This week marks the end of my student teaching experience, and the last time I will be teaching these five types of students for at least a few years. But I will never be able to think of my high school in the same way I did 5 months ago. I’m so grateful that my high school experience was a positive one, and I know my school and my teachers served me well. I just wish I could do more to create the same kind of experience for the huge percentage of kids who fall into these five categories. I would never have been any use to them at all if I hadn’t let my idealistic picture of high school disintegrate a bit. Though I still can’t say I have tons in common with these five kinds of people, at least now I have a little more empathy.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2014 2:21 am

    I work with middle school students and what you described here is pretty much what I work with and have to deal with on a daily basis. I’m always trying to find a way to motivate and encourage them but they just want to come to school, have fun and not do the work.

  2. thelittlemerskank permalink*
    May 1, 2014 5:14 am

    Your life is so intense, Cindy! I am right there with you… I had a very sheltered life at high school, maybe even a bit more so than you because I grew up in a small town. I have thought before about being a high school teacher (and you never know, it could still be in the cards), but I really wonder how well I would be able to take it. I

    have done a bit of teaching here at Oxford (just a single class here or there) and the atmosphere is seems so different. Everyone who is here does their work (or at least makes a good effort) sometimes going above and beyond what you even expected. Everyone here wants to be here. Nearly everyone seems to love their subject and to want to learn. It is so refreshing, and makes life as a teacher much easier. Of course there are dark sides even here. I haven’t done enough teaching to encounter most of them, but one negative can be those kids that push themselves too hard, and drive themselves to despair under pressure to attain ‘a first’. All in all though, it is a completely different atmosphere from a public high school.

    But yeah, most of the kids here are the ‘achievers’ the kids from your class that work the hardest, the ones with the best attitudes, the ones from the best schools. I admire so much that you are not just teaching those students– the students every teacher wants to teach– but teaching them all. Go, Cindy!

  3. May 2, 2014 8:48 am

    i completely agree cindy. my high school experience was a total bubble, i rarely got offered drugs and it was only senior year when i really realized that anyone was actually having sex. our town was so sheltered too. i can’t imagine teaching some of the kids i knew then, much less kids whose water gets turned off.

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