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One That Didn't Get Away

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I admit it. I was a second-semester senior's nightmare in the flesh.

Halfway through the school year, one of the senior English teachers moved. As a 9th grade English teacher, I yearned for the greater challenge of teaching British literature to seniors, so I decided to give up all of my classes and take over all of hers at the semester break. The transition meant winning the minds and hearts of five sections of seniors when all they could think about was the end--spring break and senior slide. No teacher in her right mind could actually expect them to do any work.

One class had more than its share of wisecrackers, chatterboxes, and indiscriminate whiners, including one supreme troublemaker named Chris. This highly disruptive underachiever had been the bane of the former teacher's school day, and she was glad to leave him behind on her way to another state.

Chris was an outspoken C or D student. If left unchanneled, he verged on self-destruction and was usually a major distraction to the others. Although his typical behavior was more suited to a 7th grade classroom, I was drawn to his playfulness. He probably suffered from attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity, but he was in my classroom, and I made sure I found ways to manage his energy. I wanted our study of literature and writing to be highly interactive, and I could usually count on Chris to volunteer the first thought that came into his head.

Those first few weeks set the tone for the final months of the year. I collected daily homework assignments and checked for accuracy, seriousness, and strangely coincidental phrasings on friends' assignments.

Students entered a room with 18th-century classical music playing quietly in the background; prints of neoclassical houses and gardens covered the walls. Students presented modern examples of social satire. We analyzed Art Buchwald articles and videotapes of Saturday Night Live for parody, hyperbole, and irony. In short, I let them know that I was serious about teaching the fundamentals of literature but that they could have fun learning them.

As the semester progressed, I learned the upsides of using my students' first names at every opportunity. Make students feel as if they are the experts, and they will begin to raise their expectations for themselves.

"As Janice's cartoon clearly demonstrates, humor is often achieved through exaggeration.''

"Now, as Chris knows, the Romantic poets were intrigued by the supernatural.''

"Terry's sneering response to this particular work of modern art was typical of many critics.''

I found various and sundry ways to let them know that I saw them. I was aware of their demeanors. They would not be allowed to erupt into chaos or shrink into invisibility in my classroom, even if they were just days shy of graduation. They still had to care. I cared, and what I was teaching was worth knowing.

May came soon enough, and they seemed amazed to find out that even seniors had to take a final exam. By now, they knew me well enough to know it wouldn't be an easy one. Amidst whines and protests, I reviewed the semester's material. I circled and crisscrossed the room as they quizzed each other on the terms and genres we had covered.

In late May, I handed out the final examination of their high school English careers.

The essay section elicited the most groans. My students kindly reminded me how much grading I would have to do. Wasn't I tired? After all, I was seven months pregnant. Didn't I have to decorate the nursery or something?

All of the members of that last, most challenging class had turned in the objective section of the exam and were busily writing their essays when I became aware of Chris muttering and shaking his head. Flipping pages devoid of pen marks, he looked at me incredulously. He was becoming a distraction to the others.

Feigning casualness, I walked over to him and put my hand on his shoulder. He jerked away.

"You can't be serious,'' he said. "I studied, and I don't know any of this stuff.''

I knew that wasn't true. Only days before, he'd impressed me with a number of correct answers in our literary Jeopardy! review session.

"Just think about the questions, Chris,'' I said in a low voice. "I know you know the answers.''

"Yeah, right,'' he sneered back.

I walked back to my desk only to find him right behind me, holding out the nearly blank essay section of his final English exam. He thrust it into my hands and, with a flagrant salute to his peers, strode out of the classroom.

Pens paused mid-sentence, and they all looked at me. I was tired and hot, and my feet were swollen. This was my last exam of the year, and I wouldn't even be here next year. Chris was a senior, supposedly ready for independence, supposedly an adult capable of making his own decisions and living with the consequences, even if that meant taking summer school for failing senior English.

If I let him go, would others follow and hope for an unbelievably curved grading scale? None of them could afford such a flippant demonstration of senior indifference. Besides, I wasn't about to let Chris close our semester together with such disdain.

Scanning the classroom closely to let them know I was still aware of their every move, I went to the door. Chris was halfway down the hall.

"Chris,'' I hissed. I stood with one foot inside the classroom.

He spun around.

"Come here. I didn't say you could go.''

"I'm finished,'' he shrugged. "It's too hard. You made the test too hard.''

"Come here,'' I said in my best teacher voice.

He took a few steps toward me.

"What are you doing?'' I held up the nearly unmarked exam. "You know this stuff!''

He shook his head but kept walking toward me.

When he was near enough to touch, I grabbed his forearm and led him back to his desk.

"Sit down,'' I said. Twenty-seven pairs of eyes were absorbing every detail of our exchange.

He flopped into the chair.

"Look at this question,'' I whispered. "You were talking about this author at the review session. I heard you. Now write something down.''

Rereading the question, he motioned me nearer. He whispered an answer, and I nodded. Flipping to another page, he skimmed a question and again his mumbled answer was on the right track. Partial credit, at least. His pen hit the paper, and he didn't stop writing until time was up.

I'd like to be able to say that Chris got a B or even a C on that exam. It was a D plus. As they say in senior lingo: D is for diploma. I didn't have to flunk him, although I still wasn't sure I'd done the right thing. I'd practically dragged him back to the classroom and coached him during a final; his professors at the community college where he was enrolled would never do that.

Chris made a point of finding me at the graduation ceremony. He seemed somewhat subdued by his cap and gown.

"Thanks,'' he said gravely.

I hugged him, and our embrace closed the school year.

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