During the spring semester of my second-to-last year of teaching, I was teaching senior English to a bunch of severely senioritis-afflicted young people. I fall firmly in the camp that prefers freshmen to seniors, every time. While my department chair at the time would refer to ninth graders as “not people yet,” I really loved their explorative energy. Seniors, on the other hand? I defy you to get a group of high school seniors in the last four months before graduation to muster the slightest sense of adventure in the classroom (and the British literature curriculum really does not help). But I digress, already.
Daniel*, a charming and intelligent young Black man, was in this senior class. Of all of the apathy-battling students in that group, Daniel gave the fewest damns. He attended most days, flirted with the girls in the class, cracked jokes, and completely and utterly avoided doing work—all semester. He was bright, and I knew it. He’d wandered into my room a year before when I was tutoring ninth graders, and I was impressed with him as he helped one [particularly cute, in retrospect] young lady with her grammar assignment.
I reminded Daniel on a weekly basis that he needed English to graduate and that he might find it hard to pass without doing any of the assignments. I pointed out that at eighteen years old, he needed to be responsible for his goals and successes; and I printed lists of missing tasks and pointed out where he could get the information from my website. When I talked to him about graduating, Daniel told me, all-smooth-like, “Oh, I’m going to graduate.” No number of progress reports printed out and handed to him seemed to convince him that I needed grades (not amazing grades! Just grades) if I was going to be able to pass him on to receive a diploma. I never gave a failing grade lightly—but Daniel ultimately received a failing grade in my class (and another class he needed to graduate).
Before we got to that point, I consulted with other teachers who rolled their eyes, told me that there was no point in calling home because his parents never answered or returned phone calls. I learned that he’d slid by in all of his English classes, just barely passing at the very end of the course. I let the guidance counselors know that he was in danger of failing senior English but resolved that it was Daniel’s responsibility to get his work done—and I did not speak to his parents until he finally faced his failing grade on the day of graduation rehearsal. At the time, it was a point of principle: he needed to be responsible and understand consequences. A few years later, with a couple of adolescent mental health classes under my belt, I deeply regret that decision. I’ll never forget his mother weeping on the phone that day.
If I could have a do-over on Daniel, I would have tried to understand why he was avoiding his school work, what function the behavior was serving—instead of assuming that he was just a lazy kid. Despite his legal adulthood, I would have involved his parents in the conversation. Unfortunately, I operated under some beliefs that with this particular kid—and I probably shouldn’t underestimate the racial stereotypes I may have unconsciously accepted—calling home was futile. I know now, and I wish I had acknowledged it more then, that contact between parents and teachers is a protective factor for young people—even grown-ass young men like Daniel.
I’ve been bumping up against a lot of teacher guilt this semester because of my course work. I can list all kinds of justifications for what I understand to be my failure in Daniel’s case, and I even think that those are fair in some ways. But at the end of the day, I know that I didn’t do everything that I should have for Daniel. In my practice of quieting self judgment, I will say that we do the best with what we have in a given context. And I made the decision that I thought was the responsible one. In retrospect, I disagree with that decision now.
If I had a do-over with Daniel, I still don’t know if he would have passed senior English. It is true that grades reflect what students do, and at some point, Daniel would have needed to elect to do something. He made his choices. I made mine. I imagine we both have some regret.
This entry was actually prompted by this great TED talk by Brene Brown about shame, which led me to explore some of my own points of shame. I’ve noticed this one floating up to the surface a lot this semester. My teacher identity is still a very strong one even outside the classroom, and this episode with Daniel was one that deeply affected my sense of self in that role. And something that I’ve observed is that I often feel incredibly defensive about the topic of Daniel (which nobody else in my life these days even knows about to bring up—so these are always conversations in my head). Brene Brown talks about shame (intensely connected to privilege, incidentally) as the thing that damages the belief that change can happen. Shame-brain tells me that I can’t help young men like Daniel and that I probably ought to leave that to people who haven’t already fucked it all up.
But that’s self-protective, too (though not adaptive). That is something that I tell myself so that I don’t make myself vulnerable to that failure again. So it’s clear enough, like we tell our kids in DBT skills class, that the answer here is to approach, not avoid. I have to remember that I’ve learned new things and grown as a person and as a professional—and I have to remember that despite this failure with Daniel, it was not for lack of care or concern for him in the first place. These self-reminders help quiet the shaming voice that says that because this happened, I am necessarily a bad teacher, social worker, and person. And while I don’t have the opportunity to change history with Daniel, I am gifted the chance to do something different with other young men like him.
*name is changed