Wednesday, December 21, 2016

For Some Students, Winter Break is not a Vacation at All

Sometime around the third or fourth year of my career, I was asked to teach a course called Senior English.  This was a semester long class for students who needed an additional half credit of English to graduate, mostly seniors on the five- and six-year plan.  In addition to books smarts (which some took great pains to hide) they were wiser than they should have been at that age. 
Calvin wrote an essay about being stopped by the cops while carrying more than an ounce of dope. The moral of the story, it turned out, was, “Always keep some juice in your glove compartment in case you have to eat your $#!+.”
That was tame compared to Betsy, who, through a series of misguided choices that snowballed, found herself serving at the pleasure of a dope dealer boyfriend who gave her room and board in exchange for pimping her out. And this, of course, was preferable to life at home with her abusive father.
And then there was Perry. Perry’s parents were cocaine addicts. By the time he was six, he knew how to get himself ready for school and on the bus because his parents were incapable of doing it for him. At age 13, he found his father’s cocaine stash. By 15, he was addicted to heroin. One thing led to another, and he found himself facing an attempted murder rap. Now on probation and hoping simply to be a normal teenager, he couldn’t understand how the stoners always knew to target him: “I swear to God, Ms. T., I wasn’t at this school twenty minutes before somebody asked me if I wanted to get high.”
In January, after the kids returned from winter break, Perry began falling asleep in class, not doing his homework. I feared he had begun using again and kept him after the bell one day.
“What’s going on, dude?” I chirped, trying not to sound judgmental.
“I’m sorry. My mom’s boyfriend tried to pick a fight with me over break. I think he wants to get my probation violated. So I’m living with my brother in the city.”
Perry was taking a commuter train from Chicago to the western suburbs, a trip that required him to get up at four in the morning. He wasn’t using; he was just exhausted from the effort of trying to be a normal kid. In mid-explanation, he grinned and said, “See what my girlfriend got me for Christmas?” and held up his arm to show me his watch. The metal band hung nearly an inch slack on his too slender wrist, but he glowed with pride.
“Wow—I think she kinda likes you!”
He chuckled shyly.
“Are you going to be doing that commute for the rest of the year?”
“I don’t know. I’m trying to get enrolled in Gordon Tech.”
“Okay, well, keep me in the loop, okay?”
What else could I say? Perry probably would have desired it otherwise, but circumstances had rendered my class a very low priority.  I let him sleep.
That same January, three different students told me tales of constructive eviction from their own homes. I had grown accustomed to disdaining stepfathers and mothers’ boyfriends. Not until this time did I begin to blame the mothers themselves. With no children of my own, I tried very hard not to judge the parenting of the adults in my students’ lives. Intuitively, though, I knew that while I had often accepted the company of some fairly worthless men, I had yet to meet the man for whom I would sell out my own flesh and blood.
            I share all this as a public service announcement.  Both new and experienced teachers may benefit from being reminded that some of our students have spectacularly bad parents.  If your child has asthma, you should probably forbid smoking in your home.  If you have young children who should be asleep by nine, the late-night partying needs to take place somewhere else. 
At worst, many of our students spend the so-called holidays with people who should not  be allowed to own a pet, much less raise a child.  The TS in PTSD stands for traumatic stress, which can result from being beaten by someone three times your size or threatened with homelessness.  Under chronic stress, the brain has two options.  It can shut completely down, resulting in the student who absolutely will not respond to us, who shrugs off our attempts at communication.  Or it remains perpetually vigilant.   These are the students are always angry, ready to fight you or their peers or the cops or whomever they perceive as a threat. 
This January, please recognize that some of your students may have spent two weeks in what amounts to a battle zone.  Don’t be surprised when they manifest bad behavior upon their return to your classroom.  And try not to compound the problem by being harsh with them.      
No matter how unreasonable their behavior seems to you, it makes sense to them.  You don’t need to know the specifics of their situation to give your kids the benefit of the doubt, to remind yourself that no child wakes up in the morning and asks, “How can I screw up my life today?”  Make an effort to be the calm, trustworthy, reliable adult they absolutely need at this time.  As Eric Jensen wrote, “If yelling worked, the kids from the worst families would be the best behaved.”
One more thing I think needs to be stated explicitly, although I wish it didn't: all the students I wrote about here were white.  No race or ethnicity has a monopoly on dysfunction.
Here’s hoping 2017 is a better year in every way!


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