A. At a conference called "Making Language Arts More Relevant," I sit listening to the keynote speaker talk to us about how high school graduates don’t know how to capitalize the first words of sentences. This woman is the director of human resources at a cybersecurity firm located near the high school where I teach. She is talking to us about what successful job candidates’ reading and writing looks like. We sit at our tables, listening.
“It’s amazing to me how many of our applicants just do not know how to write basic English,” she says. The words feel blameful but I can tell she is trying to sound instructive, even amused.
I’ve seen teachers fall on one of two sides of this issue. One faction decries a systematic “lowering of expectations” and “standards” that lead to mass incompetence and societal mediocrity. The other believes it is not rigor that we’ve lost but creativity and cultural relevance, which is why kids have trouble connecting to schoolwork and have stopped engaging. At the conference, I listen to both sides argue with each other for a while, staying out of it and simply doing my designated job, which is to record all of the ideas that are being articulated so that my sub-group can suitably reflect on the forum later on.
Soon after the voices begin repeating themselves I stop listening altogether. I switch to G-chat and talk with my friends about things that, in the moment, seem to make more sense.
The drive from the conference building back to school is a short, straight shot on a six-lane thoroughfare. The route takes you underneath two interstate highways that were laid over residential neighborhoods decades ago. On the left and right you pass by countless liquor stores, check cashing centers, gas station marts and auto repair shops. There is a park near the entrance to the school, where a student was stabbed earlier in the year by members of an opposing gang. The faculty lot where I park was the scene of a shooting the previous year, carried out by kids who had dropped out.
Even without place names, our part of the city might sound familiar. In one cardinal direction most of the factories have long since shut down, but the oil refineries and coal plants still run at full strength, making the proximal neighborhoods foul-smelling and desolate. In the opposite direction mammoth shopping plazas have recently been built, separating our neighborhood from the new condos that were mass-produced in the adjoining district. Our neighborhood itself is densely populated yet oddly quiet. One-story houses line the streets, the rusted gates hanging by broken hinges, children’s plastic, water-stained toys hugging the chain link fence. Televisions can be seen flashing in the windows, but the doorsteps and front yards have that abandoned, post-apocalyptic feel.
The school itself is huge and rectangular and plain brown. It’s been in danger of being shut down for years now, as test scores—both state-administered and college-required—continue to slip. During the day hundreds of kids linger across the street from the side entrance, in vacant lots and church lawns, littering the land with cigarette butts, snack wrappers and soda bottles, taunting the hall monitors who wait on the other side brandishing walkie-talkies and clipboards full of names. I figured the reason truant kids hang out there of all places is because there really is nowhere else very interesting nearby. They may as well just stay close and wait for their friends to finish class.
One day a week, I arrive at school especially early for our customary Data Meeting. In this meeting, we break up into small groups to determine the most statistically fruitful ways of teaching those basic concepts in public schools—grammar, sentence structure, thesis, paragraph. Our tables are filled witth samples of student work. I have in front of me toppled piles of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” printouts, rising up from the fake wood like an impossible Escher staircase. My students had annotated the margins of Dr. King’s “Letter,” and we teachers were there to analyze those annotations. What types of rhetorical phrases were they understanding? Could they read complex text? Were they engaged with the meaning of the piece? I had on my laptop a four-page Excel spreadsheet begotten from King’s four-page letter. The spreadsheet held the data I collected, and for all intents and purposes it indicated that most of my kids had failed to understand any of what they’d read.
Administrators peeked over our shoulders, chiming in when they heard a teaching strategy they liked. We started the conversation reluctantly, having talked for ten minutes about good old faculty drama until the administrators had approached our table. Now we were pontificating vigorously, hardly letting others get in a word while the student papers were brushed around the table. I felt angry and phony. When the administrators went away the conversation staggered and collapsed like an exhausted pack animal. We collected our papers and took our laptops under our arms and disappeared into our respective classrooms until the next week when we’d be forced to bring it all back.
At a faculty meeting, some teachers admitted that they were afraid to give F's to some students. They knew many of the kids who got C's and D's really should have failed, but these teachers didn’t want to be crucified by administrators who needed more students to pass in order to keep the school doors open, and everyone’s job intact. “If we actually adhered to ‘real’ standards,” someone said, “our graduation rate would be even sadder.” (That year about 50 percent of our students would graduate.)
“That’s why you have your data,” the principal responded. “If you can justify it then by all means, fail them. As long as you’ve called their parents at some point to warn them that their kid is going to fail, and you’ve documented that phone call in the system, then you won’t hear any objections from me.” She smiled, exuding that tough love, and sat down. We were relieved and satisfied by her show of loyalty toward us.
Then the assistant principal chimed in. “Back when I was teaching, kids would ask me why I had failed them. I would say, ‘I didn’t fail you, you failed all by yourself.’ If they aren’t cutting it, they need to fail. We can’t just keep pushing them forward if they are not proficient. You see, it hurts them more than it helps them.”
I thought about the kids I’d given F's to, and if those F's fell into the category of “justified” or not, if they were futile or productive. I’d failed one boy whose last and only completed assignment was a rap song called “Anti-War” that he and I had written collaboratively, performed and recorded on YouTube, before he disappeared. His friend still came sometimes and reported to me that my student was “doing okay,” though he was still homeless and had chosen to be on his own now that he was eighteen. I’d failed a boy who had months before stopped coming to my AP Literature class sometime after tearfully reading a personal essay in front of the class about the last time he had seen his father, ten years ago in the state courthouse. There was a girl who had turned in nothing for ten weeks until the day after the quarter ended when she emailed me a short essay she had written about the time she was raped in the boy’s locker room. This was after I’d submitted her F to the administrative secretary. I’d given an F to a boy who had already been expelled for trying to shove a hall monitor, because “You still have to give those kids grades,” one of the principals had told me, “for documentation purposes, even though they’re ghosts.”
Along these lines I had given F's to countless kids who had dropped out but whose names remained on my roster for some reason. Most of my F's were dealt out like cards to kids who sat around the table but had never felt like playing anyway. Feigning apathy, they hardly looked at what they got. I saw them once every couple of weeks; they said hi to me, found an empty chair and put on their headphones. If I prompted them to participate they just ignored me or walked out; if I kicked them out they would be bitter toward me until they got past their grudge and came back. I learned to just accept their tenuous presence, and with all these kids I carried on amicable non-relationships from the day they came to trust me all the way until the end of the year when the system finally dead-ended for them and they would have to find their way back in the dark. I knew I wasn’t allowed to condone their academic dormancy. I believed I could not be their friend. I believed I could not be their support. Even then I knew how fucked up my decision-making was as an authority, how distorted my concept of education was as a teacher, how defeated I often acted around struggling children in order to win psychological games and maintain the rational high ground.
Out of my 146 students, eight were represented by parents at the parent-teacher conference night. This was standard for our school. Some thought the low turnout was because the parents were still working at seven, eight o’clock on a weekday, pushing mops downtown or slaving away at fast food restaurants and all-night checkout counters. Others thought maybe the parents just didn’t get the memo about conference night, even though we’d sent it home repeatedly and advertised it online. And then there were the ones who just assumed the parents didn’t care enough to show up.
One man interrupted my solitude late in the evening as he came in with his wife and demanded only to see his son Luis’s grade and attendance records. Luis usually had his head down in class and he had barely turned in any work. He was holding down a D average. But I had had some good conversations with him throughout the year. He told me he disliked school and disliked it even more now that a county judge had mandated his daily attendance. Healso told me he felt that school was leading him nowhere and that he couldn’t wait until he was legally allowed to drop out so he could get his GED and become a personal trainer. I wasn’t sure if it was all right for me to tell the parents about these conversations. I wasn’t sure what they wanted to hear. But I knew I could talk to them about the personal essay Luis wrote about his childhood soccer days. It was a promising essay, and I wanted to read more of his writing.
But after I showed them the grades and attendance, Luis’ father grabbed his wife by the shoulder and made for the door. “Late twice this quarter,” the man mumbled. “He lied to us. We will be having a talk.” He apologized to me profusely for his son’s behavior, which we had not talked about. “He just doesn’t think about his future,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s not good at all.”
The next day, Luis was having a conversation with his friend Ále about the Super Bowl while I tried to facilitate a discussion on the latest anti-immigration legislation. The new crackdown on undocumented immigrants was intimidating families into keeping their children home from school, or moving out of their state. While I explained the details of the new law, Ále was giving Luis a verbal lashing for asserting that the Giants would beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
“The Patriots are going to fucking kill the Giants, you fucking dumbass,” Ále said.
Across the room a girl had had enough of their inconsideration. “Shut the fuck up,” she said.
“Make me,” Ále said quietly, redirecting his glance downward at his desk.
On the desk sat a library book Ále had supposedly been reading for the last couple of months, How to Make Money at Bridge. Once I asked him if he was actually learning anything from that book.
“Yeah,” he said, “I’ll kick your ass. How much you wanna bet?”
I told him I didn’t gamble, but that I would take him if he really wanted me to. My father taught me bridge when I was eleven. Ále’s father was in the process of being deported. That day Ále stayed after class to apologize for being combative toward me while I was trying to teach. He told me that ever since he and his father had begun waiting for the court date—it kept getting postponed—he was “dealing with a lot of shit right now.”
Anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of students at our school were undocumented, like him. “They’re not gonna let me go college or nothing,” he said that day after school, “but I know I should still do my work. I don’t mean to be an asshole, really.”
He walked out of the room before I could get any words out.
On the Friday before Martin Luther King Day I emailed the entire faculty the five most radical King quotes that I could find. I had already been labeled “idealistic” by the other teachers in the school, but I still did it because I knew you weren’t allowed to knock idealism on Martin Luther King Day. For that one day a sober, honest look at things goes unchallenged in any professional setting.
From the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” assignment I knew that my students were tired of reading Martin Luther King since elementary school. Who knew how many times they sat through “I Have a Dream.” So I introduced the class as a lesson on the Vietnam War, but then fooled them by playing selections from King’s 1967 Anti-Vietnam speech.
“Wait,” one of my kids flinched, “MLK was against the Vietnam War? When did the Vietnam War happen?”
These eleventh graders, I realized, never had any real exposure to narratives on the shadowy side of history. They’d been told their whole lives what Martin Luther King stood for, in dumbed down Black History Month posters and history textbook captions, but they didn’t know who he was or what kind of country he lived in.
"There is a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America," Dr. King said in his speech. "And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such."
I, too, was never taught about the Vietnam War in high school. The year we were supposed to cover it—Honors American History—our teacher started with Christopher Columbus and only got up to the 1920s by the time the school year ended.
“Well, I guess that’s the breaks,” the teacher told us on the last day of class. He was about to retire and felt okay about how his lectures had fostered a stultifying sense of boredom all year. We, the students, felt okay about it too. The gentle drone of his voice had allowed us time for daydreams and mindless whispering, one hour every day.
I imagined that my students did not take issue with their teachers’ annual omission of something like the 1960s and Vietnam, either. I didn’t think most kids liked going to their classes, and a free pass of any kind was a small triumph. But that day, however, something about what King was saying on my projector screen set them off. They made some internal connection, some discovery of relevance that gave them pause, at least until the bell rang.
On graduation day, our superintendent took the podium and spoke about how successful a year we’d had. He named the few students who were going to college out of state, and then the other few who were going to state schools. There was no mention of the 300 or so seniors who would not graduate, who were not in the auditorium that day, many of whom still couldn’t read.
The superintendent stiffened his lip and acknowledged the graduates who were “going into the work force” armed with a high school diploma. Proud families cheered in the stands, knowing that their sons and daughters were now one step closer to making some money and getting out of their neglected deindustrialized neighborhoods.
For those families, this is the dream. Our superintendent knew it and as he raised his fist in encouragement I knew he was pandering to an audience that, at that moment, couldn’t tell the difference between a high school diploma and a check that was historically apt to bounce. To be really honest about it, there wasn’t much teaching that happened in my class that year. And in the other classrooms there wasn’t much either. There was a lot of reprimanding, a lot of complaining, some wrangling and too much blaming. There was a lot of passive-aggressive emailing, data crunching, test prepping. There were lies addictively told to children, real issues being avoided out of fear, and contrived busywork each day. There was ignorance, cowardice, and control, and as a result, there was suppression of the truth, in every single classroom, including mine.
Americans want to talk about how much our kids are failing these days. Those outside the educational system all have their fierce, personal criticisms. And on the front lines, in those faculty meetings, data sessions, and behind the closed doors of ruinous classrooms, teachers and administrators are telling the same stories. There’s the one about the unfocused kids who need to be taught discipline and compliance so they can get a job; the one about the parents who are setting a bad example and creating a negative home environment; the one about the teachers who aren’t a good fit because they aren’t holding their students accountable for doing work that renders them comatose. We tell these stories as we busy ourselves, trying to reassemble the parts of a machine we refuse to admit is fundamentally, and fatally, flawed. Just like we are. Meanwhile, our students are losing interest, losing hope, and vanishing from our records altogether, and for all the productive work we do, we aren’t doing much to bring them back.
Jerald Isseks has been teaching high school English since 2009. He attended Vassar College and then Boston University. Currently, he teaches in Jamaica, Queens.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]