Where Have They Gone?

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Eight years after entering teaching, the author tracked down his first students. What he found raised some unsettling questions about rookie teachers.

The crime, as the court transcript described it, was unremarkable, bumbling, pathetic. It took place on the evening of May 14, 1997, on a busy street in Pasadena, California. Pablo Sanchez, a 19-year-old high school dropout high on crack, was sitting on a bench at a bus stop with two friends. They decided to rob someone, and a pedestrian named Ed Victor Paxson had the misfortune to walk by. As one of the trio demanded money from Paxson, Pablo brandished a Phillips screwdriver and asked, "Do you want to get shanked?" At Pablo's trial, Paxson testified that he understood the ugly term. "To me," he told the court, "it just means mauling to one extent or another with a crude instrument." Paxson said that he ignored the young men and continued on his way. A few steps later, he felt two blows to his head from the handle of the screwdriver and found himself on the ground, struggling with the assailant and rolling into the busy street as traffic halted. The young men ran off, taking nothing.

Paxson called the police, who found Pablo within minutes, still on the street in the same neighborhood. Less than half an hour after the aborted robbery, Paxson identified his attacker in a lineup. Officers searched the young man and found evidence that connected him to four muggings and one attempted robbery committed in the span of 48 hours. That evidence included the shirt Pablo was wearing, which he had taken off a man's back in a robbery the day before. The two-day crime spree brought Pablo the T-shirt, a bicycle, a jacket, two dollars, and a five-year sentence in state prison.

Pablo Sanchez was once my student.

I read his court file last summer because, eight years after entering teaching and five after leaving it, I decided to find out what had become of my first students--a class of low-track 9th graders at Pasadena High School in Southern California. During my first year out of college, I taught both English and history to these kids, working with them for two periods or more each day in spacious but overheated room G-208. Now, I wanted to know how they were faring. Taking several weeks off from my job as an education reporter for the Oakland Tribune, I returned to Pasadena and set about locating members of the class. Letters to their last known addresses produced only two responses. A search of the court files, sadly, was more fruitful. Of the 34 youngsters who appeared on the roster of this class at some point during the 1990-91 school year, seven are convicted felons.

Reading the case files that afternoon in the court clerk's office, I felt sick. Revulsion welled up in me as I tried to make sense of the charges against my students: Assault with a deadly weapon. Spousal abuse. Cruelty to a child. These violent criminals were not the strangers I write about as a journalist. They were my kids, the youngsters who had passed notes and cracked jokes and acted silly in my classroom just a few years ago. It was not easy to imagine those same people armed with screwdrivers and knives, threatening and hurting other human beings. Too many of my 9th graders, it was clear, had earned failing grades on something much bigger than a quarterly report card.

They are now 22 years old--the same age I was when I was their teacher--yet for seven of them, many of life's doors are already bolted shut. Felonies are serious crimes with serious consequences: a year or more in prison and a lifelong stigma. For the duration of their sentence and probation, felons cannot vote; even after they've done their time, few employers will take a chance on them. Like any teacher, I had hoped that my students would grow up to lead fulfilling lives as productive citizens of this country. For these seven, however, exactly the opposite has happened.

After combing through the court records, I continued my research, conducting more than a dozen extensive interviews--one in the waiting room of the county welfare office, where by chance I found three of my students at the same time. Gradually, a grim postscript to that 9th grade year took shape. Half the students I taught in that class never graduated. Of the 22 I have located, 13 have children, but only five are married. Two have earned college degrees, one at a four-year college, the other at a two-year community college. Seven are unemployed; another seven work at minimum-wage jobs with little prospect for advancement. Among the seven felons, two are serving time in state prison.

Pasadena High is not the type of school where one would expect such a failure-filled alumni report. Although Pasadena no longer enjoys the comfort and wealth that it did a generation ago, it is no South Central Los Angeles or South Bronx, either. Indeed, Pasadena is fairly typical of the medium-sized cities in which so many American children live and attend school. A community of contrasts--rich and poor dwell as close neighbors--it produces both hard-core gangbangers and the queen of the Rose Parade. The students in my class may not have been easy to teach, but they weren't off the scale. The school was tracked, and as I recall, my class was the second-lowest of 11 ability groups in the 9th grade. Most of my students had shaky skills, several had formidable disciplinary histories, and a few had criminal records. Yet many went home each night to a parent--in some cases two--who cared about and supported education.

The record of room G-208 is not uniformly dismal by any means. Indeed, some of my students' life stories are quite encouraging. A learning-disabled boy who watched his father shoot his mother and then himself is now married with children and working as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter. A girl whose mother suffered a mental collapse and whose father brutally abused her graduated early from high school and went on to get her college degree. She now dreams of becoming a physician. A handful who didn't graduate from high school have found jobs that pay the bills and allow them to lead happy lives.

But too many of my students have led lives filled with disappointment. Often, I found myself sitting in their dark, smoky apartments, the television invariably on, trying to see in them the vibrant, mischievous, whimsical children that had once sat in my class. Some of them had been angry and difficult, but they had blazed with life. Now, their flames have burned out, their dreams extinguished and forgotten.

Take Artie. A brilliant child with a daggerlike wit, Artie never did a scrap of school work. He had an uncanny knack, though, for imitating me, and he kept the others rolling with laughter. In the eight years since Artie played court jester in my class, he has become an old man: He has served time in prison, fathered two children, and lost his mother. In just one year, he attended the funerals of four close friends, all under the age of 24. Now a born-again Christian, Artie works nights stocking shelves at a local Target. "I feel like my life is done with," he says. "Now it's time for me to live for my children." Yet he hasn't seen either child in months.

Then there is Jeffery, once an unstoppable geyser of energy, determined to make a life as a track star or football player. A dropout in his senior year, Jeffery now passes his days at his girlfriend's apartment, paralyzed by his brother's recent gang-related murder. When I ask what he does with his time, Jeffery offers this schedule: cartoons, Jerry Springer, the Beverly Hillbillies, soap operas, and cartoons again.

Once wound so tight he couldn't endure a class period sitting still, Jeffery lounges on a couch and says, "Sometimes, I go outside." Looking back, he wishes he had done things differently, tried harder, completed school. "I wish I could go back to those years,'' he tells me.

Jeffery has a 4-year-old daughter who lives in Mississippi. Even though he has not seen the girl in three years, he still imagines that he is an important force in her life, that she will stand at her high school graduation and say that he was the reason she made it. "I want to be a good father," he says.

The search for my former students grew from a curiosity I'm sure most teachers feel: a desire to find out what has happened to the children we have taught, to see what kind of adults they have become, what sort of lives they are leading. Behind that, I think, is the simple need to take measure of our labor--not in percentiles and deviations from a norm-referenced median but in a much more human way: Have we made a difference in our students lives? Did they learn anything from us? Have we inspired them, instilled determination and confidence? On rare occasions, a teacher is lucky enough to receive a letter or visit from a former student wishing to express thanks for a skill, a piece of wisdom, or an unwavering standard that proved crucial years later. Far more often, our students walk out of our lives on a bittersweet June day, never to be seen or heard from again. We are left to guess at the later chapters in their lives.

After eight years, I decided I needed to know more. Now that I do, I am struggling to understand why life turned out so poorly for so many of the young people I taught. What, if anything, might have made things better?

Sometimes, it's tempting to wonder if it wasn't too late for many of my students by the time they reached high school. After all, many arrived in my classroom with gang affiliations, poor or little parenting, and lousy reading and study skills. Academically, that can be a lethal combination.

Even some of my former students believe that it was too late for them--that by the time they entered high school their downward course was set. At the time, street gangs and crack cocaine were enjoying an unprecedented, symbiotic popularity. Several of my students had taken blood oaths with potent Los Angeles gangs while still in middle school. At least a couple were making hundreds of dollars a night selling drugs. There was no turning back, they told me, no way school books could ever compete with the lure of fast money and all that came with it.

"What you guys were trying to tell me was, it's like, if I do all my work in class and I stay in school, then I can get a job that pays a whole bunch of money," says Martin, who had been an active drug dealer in high school. "But then, at that point, I was already making money. So I wasn't really thinking toward the future." Today, Martin lives in a filthy, ramshackle house with his mother and his two young children. He claims to be employed as a security guard, but his father doubts that's true. More than anything, Martin wants to protect his children from the temptations that he grew up with. But he's not optimistic. "I really would like to move to a different place," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to do--get a rocket ship and move to the moon?"

Could Pasadena High School have done things differently to improve my students' chances? Of course. It's a mistake for schools to treat each student the same.

The parents of my students might have kept them in line, but many of them were off-track themselves, their lives in disarray. What's more, my kids in their early years were the victims of a long-running battle between parents and schools in Pasadena. The school system had a history of racism, and some parents were quick to blame prejudice for a teacher's or administrator's disciplinary action. Each side was suspicious of the other and passively antagonistic, if not openly hostile. There was little communication and even less trust.

The "it was too late" argument lets me and my fellow teachers off the hook, but I reject it. Certainly the students arrived at my door with baggage, but there are plenty of examples of schools that succeed with similar kids. Besides, if we declare that certain kids are beyond help, we might as well pack up our chalk and go home. Naturally, my job would have been easier if others--the students themselves, their parents, and in some cases the teachers before me--had done their jobs better. But playing the blame game does little for the kids who show up at our door.

Could Pasadena High School have done things differently to improve my students' chances? Of course. It's a mistake for schools to treat each student the same. My kids were in serious trouble when they showed up for 9th grade, but I didn't see it then. This might not have been the case if classes and courseloads had been smaller. Looking back, many of my former students say that they desperately needed a support system, a network of tutors and mentors--something.

Still, Pasadena High was trying. It had embarked on some radical reforms to improve learning, particularly for the students most at risk. Under guidance from the Coalition of Essential Schools, the popular reform network created by educator and writer Theodore Sizer, Pasadena High was divided into "houses"--schools within schools--to prevent the kids from feeling lost and anonymous. Students spent five periods a day with two teachers. One taught English and history, the other math and science. Under such a setup, teachers could get to know their students well and keep them from falling through the cracks.

Although the reforms drove off some good teachers who disagreed with the changes, the faculty at Pasadena High was a formidable group. An experienced cadre hailed from a time when the school was one of the nation's best, and the aura of the reforms attracted a number of bright, energetic young teachers. At times we were frustrated by the uneven implementation of some of these reforms, but it certainly seemed that if any school could do right by these kids, it was ours.

Then, there's the toughest question: What role, if any, did I play in my students' failures? It's well known that 9th grade is a time of transition. What happens during that first year of high school often determines whether a youngster will go on to graduate or drop out. Could I have done things that would have altered the sad record of my class? Or put less gently: How much of this is my fault?

I entered teaching through Teach for America, a scrappy group that recruits recent graduates from top-notch colleges to work in troubled urban and rural schools. While I did not make a career in education, I cared deeply about teaching. I worked harder at it than I have at anything else in my life and treated it--at the risk of sounding bombastic or blasphemous--as almost a sacred responsibility. But like many first-year teachers, I had little preparation. At 22, with just a smattering of education theory and practice under my belt--Teach for America runs its candidates through a whirlwind preparation program--I was assigned one of the toughest 9th grade classes at Pasadena High, for both English and history. I also taught those two subjects to a group of upper-track 9th graders as well as an English course to a class of seniors. In my first year of teaching, I had to prepare each day for five different classes.

My upper-level classes went well, but not my low-track 9th grade class. The year I spent with those 34 students was little short of a disaster. I had great hopes for the kids but little understanding of how to lead or inspire them, and dealing with their behavior was a daily battle. I had few allies, even among administrators. When I felt compelled to send students out of class--for calling me an unacceptable name, say--they would often return smiling, having been admonished by some dean or counselor not to pay me much mind because I was a new teacher. The mother of one girl refused to give her the drugs that had been prescribed for her hyperactivity, suggesting instead that I smack her in the mouth when she talked back. Another student who played dice, drew graffiti, and spouted vulgarities around school was relatively well-behaved in my class--on the infrequent occasions when he showed up. Chaos never reigned, but we lost hours to back talk and frivolous argument. By November, I had adopted the same demeaning "assertive discipline" techniques that I found laughable during my brief training the summer before.

I was glad to have these 9th graders first thing in the morning because they were still sleepy--they became more rambunctious in the afternoon--and because I was done with my most challenging class by 10:30. I set what I believed were reasonable academic standards, but it was as if I had asked them to pass the bar exam. I made homework a significant part of their grades, but few kids did any. By the end of the first semester, almost two-thirds of the class took home failing grades. Administrators gently suggested that I find a new way to grade. A few parents were not so gentle. I stayed up late at night devising lessons that would intrigue or cajole or trick my students into participating. Few of my plans succeeded.

Yet I could have never anticipated the problem that most handicapped our class: My students complained time and again that I didn't care about them. This troubled me--if I didn't care, why was I working so hard?--but it also mystified me. Frankly, I couldn't see why it mattered so much. During my own schooling, I had liked some teachers and detested others, but I never refused to work because one of them didn't care about me. In fact, I can't remember wondering once whether a teacher "cared." Moreover, I had come to Pasadena to teach these kids, not to be their buddy. Certainly I wanted to be on good terms with them, but that was not my main concern. Clearly, though, the kids perceived me as foreign and cold, more like a by-the-book traffic cop than a stern but devoted mentor. And, much to my dismay, they felt they could not succeed in the class of someone who did not care about them.

As my classroom-management skills became more effective, I began to see that the foundation for a healthy, happy teacher-student relationship is a well-ordered class.

This question of caring, I now understand, was closely linked to the discipline problems. Over my next two years of teaching, as my classroom-management skills became more effective, I began to see that the foundation for a healthy, happy teacher-student relationship is a well-ordered class. In settings where discipline was the background scenery rather than the main plot line, my students and I came to know each other better, and the classroom became a far more pleasant place--for them and for me. In truth, I liked my students better, too. It was easier for them to see that I cared.

I know there were teachers in my school who got along well with their students but who still struggled teaching them. I also know now that my former students, as they look back at that time, don't blame me for their failures. Even so, I am certain that my inability to discipline the class and connect with my students contributed to their problems. The sad truth of the matter is this: I was the wrong person to be teaching those students.

Of course, I do not believe that my failures are the sole reason that so many of my students are now leading sad, unproductive lives. One year of school, one class, one teacher--they are tiny pieces of a vast puzzle. My students' fates hinged on a complex set of factors: family, community, society, and school.

I do believe, however, that my students' 9th grade year could have done more to set them on a course toward success. They needed something radically different than what they got from me. A tough class requires a teacher with skills that come with experience and practice. Veterans in the craft of teaching have mastered some simple keys to classroom success, from the administrative task of assigning and collecting homework to the compassionate but firm enforcement of rules. They know their stuff--both content and technique. Bottom line: They know what to expect; a tough class is not going to throw them for a loop.

With a few exceptions, new teachers do not have that powerful combination of skills. Such skills take time and work. Just a year later, I had far greater success with a fairly similar class of students. That's not to say that a neophyte can't be successful. But disengaged, low-achieving youngsters need more than an enthusiastic college graduate's good intentions and good ideas. Such a class needs a top-notch veteran, a master of the craft of teaching.

But education is set up today to subvert this most logical of matches. There are no incentives--monetary or otherwise--for veteran teachers to work with the neediest students. Indeed, an inane adherence to the rule of seniority often means the least-prepared teachers are assigned the toughest classrooms. As a result, thousands of kids in desperate need of a master teacher instead get a nervous novice. And what they spend much of the year doing is training a new teacher, which is essentially what my students did.

As I talked to my students and tallied the damage in their lives, the costs of such policies became clear in their pain and sadness. Jeffery, who once lived on the dream of becoming a track or football star, told me how uncomfortable he feels when his friends talk about high school. "I kind of like sheen off from the crowd," he said, "because I know what I should have did.

"Sometimes if you sit down and you really think about it and you know what you should have been doing during your high school years, it make you want to cry. Just by you not graduating, making your mom proud and everything else, it make you want to cry."

Jonathan Schorr is an education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. He taught for three years at Pasadena High School in California. The names of his students are pseudonyms.

Vol. 10, Issue 6, Pages 25-27

Published in Print: March 1, 1999, as Where Have They Gone?
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