The Kids Are Alright
I feel defensive about the negative press middle schools have been getting lately. All I read is that middle schools are failing. But schools themselves can't fail. It's teachers, students, or parents who fail. And if you take one day at a time, one student and parent at a time, give your best and expect their best, they'll almost always surprise you.
The news media portray the middle school as one huge beast that acts singly and encompasses everyone inside as it carries them to moral and intellectual destruction. But when I sit down here to write realistically about middle schools, what comes to mind are the teens themselves.
Take Ronald, for example. He sat slumped in my algebra class with his book closed, eyes glazed over, and not hearing a thing I said. One day, I told him that if he didn't do the work, he would simply have to take the class again next year. He said that he didn't care, that all he wanted was to work as a filling-station attendant. His highest aspirations were to pump gas, wash windows, and check oil. I quoted Emerson: "Our reach should exceed our grasp, or what's a heaven for?" He just walked away, shaking his head.
He never came back to class after that day. I heard that he got that job at the filling station. Being 17 and still in the 9th grade just wasn't cool. That was 1971. I wonder if Ronald ever understood what Emerson was trying to say.
A boy I'll call Phillip was the son of a congressman. Dad was hard at work in Washington, while Mom and the three kids stayed back home. Like all 8th graders, Phillip thought that Mom and Dad, especially the faraway Dad, didn't care what he did in school. So Phillip spent his time in class in social rather than intellectual pursuits. When I had gathered enough evidence to defend my opinion that Phillip had no regard whatsoever for what I was teaching, I called his parents.
Two days later, his father flew home from Washington and entered my classroom for a conference. Armed with assignments showing zeroes for incomplete work, two F's on recent tests, and a description of what Phillip was doing in class, Dad assured me that he would take care of the matter. I assured him that if I had more trouble, I wouldn't hesitate to call him again. We both smiled, shook hands, and he departed.
What surprised me was the reaction of my fellow teachers: "Don't you know who that was? Weren't you nervous? How could you have called him for such a little matter?" I responded, "Doesn't his son deserve the same education I try to give all my students?" On their way out of the building, my colleagues checked to see if the congressman had stopped by the principal's office to complain about his son's teacher. Having found that he had spoken to no one but me, they were dumbfounded.
I never did have any more problems with Phillip. His mother called me once or twice to see how things were going. I was happy to inform her that her son was doing what I knew he was capable of.
Many years later, I passed the congressman in an aisle in the hardware store, just another Saturday handyman. I introduced myself, reminded him who I was, and asked about Phillip. Dad reached out, hugged me, and said, "Because of teachers like you, my son is now a vice president at an investment firm in New York. Thank you!"
I thanked him and moved down the aisle. Although Phillip's dad used to meet with presidents and senators, making decisions to help our nation and our city, I will always remember him as a successful parent. And that isn't bad.
Michelle's mother came storming into my classroom, giving me permission to discipline her child however I wanted. She wanted Michelle to get a good education but simply couldn't control her. In five minutes, Michelle's mother performed what she believed to be her parental duties and then left.
Michelle revealed herself as a teenager who lived to shock and nothing more. She came skipping into class with a large pacifier around her neck, her hair arranged in eight ponytails around her head, and freckles drawn on her face. She announced to the class that it wasn't so hard to drive a van. She said her mother took her to parties and left her waiting in the van. When her mother was so drunk that she couldn't drive, Michelle drove home.
Another day, she announced that what she had learned in health class was wrong. Her father had told her that, contrary to what she read, it is impossible to overdose on drugs. He had tried many times, but his body always fell asleep before he could do any real damage.
On yet another day, she came to class with her nose pierced, her hair dyed blue, and a teddy bear clutched in her arms. I asked her where her books were. She looked at me in defiance and said, "My mom don't care." When our eyes met, I felt pity for her. I whispered, "I know. I'm sorry."
All her grown-up defenses fell away, and she sobbed. I looked her in the eyes and said, "I care, though. I don't care if you come to this class with every orifice of your body pierced and every inch of your body tattooed. But you are going to enter with a book, pencil, and paper, and you are going to participate, or you are simply not coming in."
After that day, she came to class prepared and willing to participate. She didn't try to impress anyone with declarations about her parents or her weekend. She got along fine. I wonder if her mother ever noticed the change.
It was the first day of school, and I was waiting for my first-period class to flood through the door. A boy came up to me and said, "I'm John. I can't read: I'm special ed." I extended my hand and said, "Glad to meet you, John. I'm Mrs. Fohey, and I can't fly. I'm a mammal." His tense hand relaxed in mine as I continued, "You, though, are luckier than I am. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to fly. All you have to do is just keep practicing and eventually you will be a good reader. If you had a weak arm, you wouldn't put it in a sling. It would just continue to get weaker. Instead, you would exercise that arm, and eventually it would be as strong as the other arm. All you need to improve your reading is to keep reading--as often as possible."
The next day, John came into my room 10 minutes early and asked what we would be reading today. I gave him the assignment; he went to his seat and started reading. By the time the rest of the class had arrived and settled in, John had had a 15-minute jump on the reading and was able to keep up with the lesson. John had found a routine that worked for him.
His routine was a stark contrast to the other three special education students in my class. They continued to use the excuse that they couldn't read. Every special education student has an Individual Education Plan, which outlines how each teacher needs to adapt instruction to better fit these students. John and the others had the same IEP. One of the adaptations was to have someone else read each lesson for them because of their "inability to read." John never needed this service because he worked so hard to read for himself. The other students, though, didn't read for themselves. And because they didn't follow in the book, they looked out the window, talked to each other, or put their heads down.
When I distributed report cards nine weeks later, John proudly displayed his A, while some other students grumbled about their grades. I overheard one say to John, "She just gave you an A because she felt sorry for you. You're special ed."
John looked at me with a flicker of doubt in his eyes, and I winked. A big smile crossed his face as he flexed his right arm and pointed to his muscle.