ARTICLE

Why I Teach: Typical Day, Typical High School

It was a whirlwind day, and yet it was entirely typical of what happens at our high school—in most high schools, probably. I just thought it was worthwhile to put this day down as an official mark that this is what regularly happens. First thing in the morning my secretary called me on the radio to tell me that I had a visitor. This could be anybody: former students, current students, teachers in other buildings who are visiting and wanted to drop by to say hello. It was Janelle. Janelle graduated early this year, so I never get to see her much anymore. She brought her month-old daughter and wanted to show me that she had all ten fingers and all ten toes. Of course, I said, “You know I’m going to hold her, right? And smell her? And kiss her? And then I’ll steal her.” She laughed and looked at me sideways because I’m always joking with her. If I keep it light enough, I sometimes think I can force her to stay in school.

It was a whirlwind day, and yet it was entirely typical of what happens at our high school—in most high schools, probably. I just thought it was worthwhile to put this day down as an official mark that this is what regularly happens.

First thing in the morning my secretary called me on the radio to tell me that I had a visitor. This could be anybody: former students, current students, teachers in other buildings who are visiting and wanted to drop by to say hello. It was Janelle. Janelle graduated early this year, so I never get to see her much anymore. She brought her month-old daughter and wanted to show me that she had all ten fingers and all ten toes. Of course, I said, “You know I’m going to hold her, right? And smell her? And kiss her? And then I’ll steal her.” She laughed and looked at me sideways because I’m always joking with her. If I keep it light enough, I sometimes think I can force her to stay in school.

Dakota, a former student, also decided to pay me a visit today. He was a slow learner and never missed a day of school. He was in the behavior disorder self-contained classroom. He’s been gone from high school for almost two years now, and when he left he was carrying around an extra 60 pounds. But he went into a military program, shaped up, got a job and also has a new baby. When he left us he was a mess. He’s getting it all together now.

As I’m walking out of the office after visiting with them both I see Annie. She’s been my office assistant in the past and I never get to see her anymore. “What are you doing in here?” I ask. She tells me that she got kicked out of class for no reason. It’s always “no reason” to hear the students tell it. “There’s more to that story,” I say. “No, there’s not. She kicked me out for saying ‘crap,’ so here I am.” This doesn’t sound like it’s going to end well, and I can see that I will probably work for at least 20 minutes to get the full story out of her. “Come on, Annie. Just saying ‘crap’ doesn’t get you kicked out of class.”

I put my hands on my hips, look at my watch to indicate that I don’t have time for all this, and she caves.

“All I said was that this class was crap and she told me not to say that word and I’m like, what! It’s not a bad word! And she’s all, oh yeah it is, and I’m like fine, then crap crap crap crap crap.”

I turned on my heel and walked out of the office, sighing loudly to voice my displeasure.

In the hallway, Drew stops me to ask if we can have a Jedi Day at school. “What for? What’s the purpose?” Drew tells me there’s no reason. He just likes Jedis. Drew is the best kind of student. He’s funny and always joking. I can’t imagine where he’s going with this. He says he wants to use Jedi moves on the teachers, too. “This is not the grade you’ll give me,” he joked. “See how awesome this could be? LET’S DO IT!”

I turn on my heels again and keep walking down the hallway, but I’m chuckling at him.

By lunchtime, I’ve written four letters of recommendation, visited six classrooms, dropped off an evaluation to a teacher and loaned money to a student. I’ve also been roped into buying raffle tickets for some sporting events and one chicken dinner. This is why I’m always broke. While I’m in the lunchroom, I see a girl that I’d noticed earlier in the day and I wanted to tell her how much I liked her outfit. She has on green earrings. As I’m wandering around the cafeteria monitoring students I see her and saunter over to her lunch table. Her friends see me approach and get that nervous an-adult-is-coming-this-way look, so I quicken my step and see that she’s texting on her cell phone. Dealing with issues of technology is a constant battle in high school.

After I deal with that violation, I ask her what grades she’s getting in class. She says, “Oh, you must already know about that C-minus I’m getting in chemistry. I’m working on it. I promise. It’ll be a B before the end of this quarter.” In fact, I didn’t know what grade she was getting, but I let her tell on herself anyway.

After lunch I watch the coordinator of a teen parenting group walking upstairs with three girls. One of them, Elyse, has come to my attention recently. She’s normally a hall wanderer, but I have taken an interest in her now that her belly’s growing. Her records state that she missed upwards of 50 days of school, but she managed to pass four out of her seven classes. How does that happen? I shake my head at trying to come up with an answer to it.

Elyse and I connected last week. I casually asked her why she’s still here in high school because she doesn’t appear to want to be in school. Most of the time the profile for students like her (not the pregnant ones, just the apathetic ones) end up in an alternative program. Defiantly, she tells me that she is not an alternative kid.

“I don’t need to be frisked every morning before school. I just can’t seem to want to get to class.”

It broke my heart when she said that, so I confided in her that I was really pulling for her and would do what I could to get her the help she needed. There’s no way she can trust me enough yet, but the interest is there. The seed is planted. I’ll water it when I can.

Elyse and two other girls (who are already parents and no longer pregnant) need to get passes back to class. And since I’m heading in the direction of my office I offer to take them, get their passes, and send them on their merry ways. As I’m writing passes for them I say, “Boy, I wish I had this kind of program in high school where I was encouraged and taught to be a mom. Know what my counselor said to me?”

“What?” they all ask in unison.

“She told me I should probably go to cosmetology school since I made a ‘mistake’ and would need to get a job and wouldn’t amount to anything.”

They all gasp. One of them pouted and cocked her head to the side. “Awwww,” she says. “That wasn’t nice.”

“I know. It’s OK. Guess how old my ‘mistake’ is now?”

“How old?” they all ask loudly. By this time, they’re excited by this conversation. I’ve got them hooked. They want to know how it all turns out, like watching the beginning part of a movie and wondering what the end brought.

“Twenty-three, almost 24. And guess what else? I went to college with my kid. And then when she grew up, she went to college. Don’t lose sight of what you want, ladies. You can have it, but you have to work for it.”

I’m finishing up the passes that I’m writing for them, and they’re desperately searching all the photos on my desk and the degrees and certificates I have plastered on the walls. That’s purposeful because students think that we’re all just magically here at work in education, as if we didn’t do anything to get here. Whenever I’ve mentioned teaching English in the past they exclaim, “You used to teach?”

All my time could be spent talking to students and checking in with them and being there for them on an intermittent basis. It’s not all I do, but these stories can’t really be told by anyone who isn’t here to connect with them. These things don’t exhaust me all the time, and I was, in fact, energized by my interactions with students. They might come back some day and bring their babies to me and show me their degrees and tell me what kinds of things they’re doing. They might go off and I’ll never see them again. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the waiting and a lot of hope, too. I don’t know the answers to what they’re dealing with now, nor will I be able to fix anything. It is what it is. And in the meantime, we all work, never knowing the outcome.

Crap crap crap crap crap.

 

Wickham is an assistant principal at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Ill. This post was reprinted from Wickham’s blog at www.mochamomma.com.