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Back to School: The Questions

graduation cap 175x141 Back to School: The Questions teacher Jean Gillis high school continuation school Alhambra  photo“Miss, don’t you ever get mad?”
“Miss, does a crime record hurt you for college?”
“Miss, you’re wearing different shoes! Does that mean you got a place to live?”

Every day students ask me the unexpected. Every day I answer as honestly as I can.

We’re in our fourth week of school. The familiarity of routine is established. We’re a lucky school in that we don’t have fights; the staff is always vigilant for any signs of tension or dispute between students so that we can glide in and intervene before something gets hot. Because of this vigilance, we all cultivate techniques for keeping kids engaged. We give them the space to ask and express what may be bottled up inside, even if it’s “off-topic” or seemingly disconnected from classwork. Usually our adult responses involve mild banter. Effective teachers have learned not to use sarcasm or threats. Students don’t take to either, and in fact they will drift out of our orbit of influence if we are not mindful.

Bringing a student closer to graduation is much harder than you would think. Right now I am very excited about the turnaround of one young man who used to bedevil me no end. Last year I could not convince him to sit all period; he hovered by the window “Looking out, Miss,” so regularly that I nicknamed him VENTANA. He scowled at me for that, but gradually he began to smile a little. He’s the one who called our word game “Scramble” despite my puny insistence that it be Scrabble. His pacing, the intractability, the attempts to slip out of class that colored last year have all vanished this fall. What happened? Because even our summer school time remained a struggle of wills. I wanted this student to work through an English text and he was hellbent on tracking the World Cup. I know we met in the middle and he wrote me an armload of soccer essays while I tried to step back from hovering and micromanaging.

In our school lexicon we have a small category called “Superseniors.” These are kids who are in the fifth year of high school, so the stakes are high. It is expensive to keep Superseniors in the system until they can graduate, but it’s even costlier to cut over-18s loose without doing everything possible to help them earn diplomas. Superseniors can be tough to work with–some drag it out and some just have had such a tortured school history that it’s a slog to the final credit. The happy news is that some Superseniors rekindle the spark they may have felt in kindergarten. This is what happened with my soccer fan. It was not my doing. It lay hidden within him, and in some inexplicable way, we’ve gotten to witness the change. This boy is my right-hand man right now. One of my coworkers got him to organize, photograph, and issue the school ID cards. We entrusted him with necessary school tasks and gave him the freedom to move about campus to accomplish them. We got the blessing of the school principal to put him to work in an unorthodox way. We listened to his concerns and we accepted his suggestions. During these past four weeks I’ve checked with his other teachers to see how he’s doing. Each teacher has marveled over his ability to knuckle down. One teacher remarked, “He told me he just wants to graduate.”

Just-wants-to-graduate is a very ambitious concept for students who have skittered along the margins before we meet them in continuation school. The process of coaxing students into scholastic life is freighted with open-ended questions. I never feel I know the answers until I’ve seen them graduate. But I know I am going to bawl on the day this particular young man finishes, and the principal escorts him to the classrooms as the P.A. system blasts “Pomp and Circumstance,” and she throws confetti to mark his passage.

Pasadena resident Jean Gillis teaches at a continuation high school in Alhambra. You can read more of her writing on her blog, Dating Yourself in Pasadena.




2 Responses for “Back to School: The Questions”

  1. rob says:

    i love this person!! who is this person

  2. A heartening story. It’s good to hear the positive ones.

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