Monday, May 17, 2010

On Failure

Another graduation has come and gone. Those of us who teach senior classes spent last week giving and grading exams, tallying up averages, taking late work amidst much scolding, and retallying those same averages for the tardy. And then we had to submit a failure list.

Four seniors failed my class for the year, which meant they did not walk across the stage Saturday or celebrate with their classmates. I have to tell you that the prospect of failing a senior is something that weighs more heavily on me than any other decision I have to make all year. I'd love to be able to say that there's really no decision, that it's cleanly objective, but of course that would be a lie. I could have had at least five more failures if that were true, but I had to ask myself, can I justify keeping a diploma out of someone's hand over a point, or three? Not only to myself, but can I justify it to my superiors, who have let it be known that we need to think long and hard about senior failures? Let's just say I had to employ some of that new math to get some of those kids in a mortarboard.

Two of the kids who did fail were virtual dropouts. Their attendance was sporadic all year, tapering off in the end to solid weeks of absence. The third was expelled to alternative school for a portion of the year and although he brought back a C from there, it wasn't enough to bring up his other grades. He did not seemed surprised. The fourth was an enigma. He came to class every single day, and he sat. Maybe he was high, I don't know. I suspect he has undiagnosed learning disabilities, but he was so incommunicative that I can't really even make an educated guess. In the third quarter, he knew he'd failed first semester and, more importantly, his mama knew it, so he came to me at progress report time and asked how he was doing. "Well, let's look," I said, opening my grade book, "You have six zeroes, W." "But! We haven't done any work except bellwork." This child actually said this to me. "Honey," I said, "where do you think all your classmates got these six grades, then? Do you not notice all the reading aloud and the discussions about stories and the writing assignments that I stand up there explaining and writing on the board every day?" He looked at me blankly. His mother came and I related this story to her. She shook her head in dismay. "I don't understand what he's doing," she said. Between the two of us, we stayed on him until he passed that quarter with a D. Fourth quarter, he knew he needed at least a B to pass for the year. He turned in some things. What happens with kids who do no work is that when they decide to give it a last ditch effort, they turn in four assignments and think they've done so much. I had to put 50s in place of his zeroes just to make his grade average out to the 58 that is our district-mandated rock bottom. He also failed his math class, so he could not have graduated anyway. But I still feel bad about it.

The worst moment, though, was Thursday when we were in the gym handing out caps and gowns to our homerooms. A girl, an honors student I do not teach except for homeroom, which meets only for a few minutes about 15 or 20 times all year, had failed two classes but somehow did not know it yet. She came up to the table to get her cap and gown and I said "K, you need to go to the library." She saw it in my face and her eyes went wide. I could imagine so precisely how the pit of her stomach felt at that moment that tears sprang to my eyes. I'm sure it was one of the worst days of her life.

Failing a senior in the kind of schools I've always worked in is made even more difficult because of the possible outcomes for those who fail. Will this child attend summer school, come back next year, or, more likely, drop out? I had a principal at what was widely considered to be the worst school in the city who told us "We are not in the business of slamming doors in children's faces." I think that's true. But the flip side of that is that road to hell we're always hearing about. The one that is paved with good intentions. So that's where I find myself at the end of every year: standing with my hand on the door, trying to figure out if I have to slam it or step out onto the road to hell.


Stacey Greenberg said...

Oh my god this is depressing. Someone has to make the hard decisions. Sorry it was you this time. xo

Rita.the.bookworm said...

Oh God. I don't really know what to say other than to remind you that what you do matters a ton. The fact that these kids have someone like you who agonizes over their future like this brings tears to MY eyes. How easy it would be for people to become jaded after so many years of this and just either pass everyone because it seems kind (and it's easy) or to just drop the gauntlet because they can. The failures are depressing, but now think about all the kids who didn't fail, who have better futures because of your inspiration and care and passion for what you do with them every day.

You can't save everyone. But, I bet you saved more than one kid this year, which is more than most of us can say. You're a hero.

Chip said...

This is depressing, and I'm sorry you have to deal with it-- but that was a great post. Very interesting, and very well-written.