i had to step outside of class for a brief moment after the bell rang and walked through a group of my students sitting outside and eating their brunch — i don’t allow food in the computer lab now that the new desktops have been received and installed.
one of the students i didn’t recognize, but it’s the end of the year and i didn’t need to know whose class the student was missing, why they were out, or whether they even had permission. things get so lax after grades are turned in and right before the seniors disappear from campus and go into the stadium to practice walking for graduation.
with a glance, i counted five. they stood around a tight circle near one of the supports.
i stepped onto the grass past the concrete walkway. behind me, a sharp gasp, a familiar one coming from one of my senior girls whose over-the-top expressions and open-mouthed grimaces would stop me in the middle of my lectures.
everything surprised her, whether i was explaining what i thought was a simple computer science concept or asking students to put everything away for a test i had announced day in and day out for the past week.
the way her jaw would drop and remain open while her eyes would squint and pull down her eyebrows before her shoulders, shrugging, lifted her arms and then her palms into the air similar to that classic “what the hell are you talking about?” meme featuring jackie chan that’s become so popular everywhere.
“jacob! what do you mean?” she would shout in a way that would start off with a shriek and ended in a whisper.
if i acknowledged her at all — sometimes directly by long stare or through a micro-expressive grimace, she would tilt her head and stare at me with eyes filled with confusion and innocent horror.
she reminded me of a precocious child. on occasion when i had to send out the seniors to a meeting, i would stop her right as she reached the door.
“hey! where are you going?”
“i’m a senior, jacob!”
as i stood onto the grass and heard her gasp, i responded loudly enough so she could hear me as i walked away.
“don’t act like you’re surprised.”
she giggled. “you know me so well.”
“if i don’t pass your class, i won’t graduate,” he told me, standing still as a rod except for his hands which shook like tissue paper.
“then, give me a reason to raise your grade because you didn’t turn in anything for three weeks!” i jab my finger at the screen showing my online gradebook, “i see you’ve done work the two weeks before that, but — three weeks — three weeks of nothing!”
“let me tell you why,” he stammered, “can i please tell you why?”
we had this conversation every day that week, and i didn’t expect anything different. “i don’t care about any reasons that come from outside this class.”
“i’m not trying to make excuses –“
“does it have to do with why you can’t participate in class?” i interjected. “i am talking about what you do while you are here.”
“it has to do with why i can’t function in class.”
“fine, go ahead.” i settled into my chair.
“my mom is terminal, and i’ve been very tired because i have to feed my siblings and make sure they’re taken care of. i don’t get to bed until very late. i try to write my scripts at home, but my internet isn’t very good. sometimes, i can’t finish them.”
“i understand that,” i responded, “but i don’t expect you or anyone else in this class to work on scripts at home. everything i have assigned this quarter — no, this year — was work designed to be completed in class.”
“in. class,” i said again, pointing at the floor as i said the words to punctuate my meaning.
the class was a broadcast class where students signed up for news stories, researched them, then wrote scripts to be read in front of a camera. every week, we created a 30-minute television show that appeared throughout the entire county, and it seemed like my students never failed until the last minute to work on scripts and queue themselves up for time in the studio.
i continued, “and i have to restate that your grades in all the other classes are a’s and b’s.”
i had his grades pulled up on my computer. “you’re taking advanced math, a college-level english course, and several other high-level courses. you’re acing all of them except for mine. broadcast is the easiest class on your schedule because i don’t give you homework, i don’t assign a lot of essays, and i grade you on what you do in the hour you’re here. this is a career class where showing up on time and doing the job is main focus of this class.”
he took a deep breath, his eyes searching the air above me for an argument. “but i am very tired, and i can’t –“
“but you’re passing every other class! i need to know why you can’t put in the effort every morning to do what you have to do. it’s not hard, you’re one of my best writers, and you’ve done well every quarter except this one.”
“is there anything i can do to raise my grade?” he pleaded. his face turned a deep purple as his hands began to shake. his eyes were sunken but alert, and his hair was combed but shaggy.
i thought about doing what i had told myself i would not do — raise his grade out of pity. but i managed to put my foot down. we would see what would happen if an unstoppable force met the immovable object.
“the quarter is over,” i said with resolve, “there’s nothing left to assign.”
his body began to shake visibly, and he took short gasps of air. i maintained my adamant composure, but my insides screamed, “mercy!”
he didn’t move from his position, but i came up with an idea. “go to the counselor. tell them to drop you. if they won’t do it, i will talk to them.”
“jacob. why are you always acting?”
acting. if only they knew. teaching was never my first choice as a profession. growing up, i had heard that those who do, do. those who can’t, teach. if teaching was ever in my future, it would only happen after years of working in a successful career. i would, and only could, teach from example and experience.
but i have come to a fuller understanding that a man may make his plans, but God will establish his steps.
after a few years working as a freelance photographery, an opportunity came up to teach at a regional occupation program. i became a part-time cte (career technical education) instructor. when my director saw that i had worked at a computer repair shop, she asked me to take on computer science courses.
now, i’m a teacher with a lot of hobbies. and i had a lot of students who brought the fight to me every single day.
“get to work!” i said, angrily at the student.
“i always do work.”
“then, let me rephrase — go do some work that’s actually good.” it sounded harsh then, and it sounds harsh now. but i had fought in many battles with this particular student who made it his mission to work off the grid. he never signed up for the important headlines. instead, he would show up on the due date with a set of videos no one asked for, and i thought no one wanted.
“what’s this?” i would ask.
“a review on a rap album.”
“who’s the rapper?” when he named some obscure rapper i would query the class, “has anyone ever heard of this guy? anyone? no one?”
he would hover until i dismissed him. “fine. i will accept it.”
over the course of the year, we would constantly butt heads. our exchanges were always the most bitter, the most loaded.
“you’re a snake, jacob,” he once told me.
i answered every challenge with a quick reaction that tested his motivations, his statements, his facts. “tell me what i did. what did i do, huh?”
“you gave the other student a camera, but you said no to me.”
“that’s because he was going to film something for the class. you, on the other hand, were going to film something for your own personal use. i would rather you get your work done and not screw around working on personal projects you don’t turn in.”
“that’s messed up,” he said, walking away.
i always had to have the last say, “just do what i tell you, and there’d be no problems!”
he used to walk into my class during other periods. for a few weeks, i only saw him in first period, and he stayed a considerable distance away from desk.
one day, while a group of students and i were talking, he joined us. while we bantered and discussed topics that had nothing to do with the tasks at hand, he posed a question that caught me off guard.
“why are you always so hard on me?”
i didn’t respond right away as several conversations were going on at the same time. when the mood shifted, most of the students left to return to their desks. as he turned to follow them, i stopped him.
“you know why i’m so hard on you?” i said, “it’s because you’re all talk.”
“what do you mean?” he asked, elongating the end of his sentence.
“i still remember what you said to me when i first met you. you said, ‘whatever you want, let me know. i’m your guy.'”
“i remember that,” he said, “and i do work every week. i do more work than everyone else in this class.”
“but it isn’t good work. you talk a big game, but you have improved the least. you do the bare minimum, you skate by, and you weasel your way out of doing actual work.”
“no. i’m trying to teach you something. when you go to college, you’re going to have professors who don’t care about you because they have a thousand students to worry about. you’re going to be a number, a student competing with thousands of others who are more competitive, better-abled, cutthroat, and coming in with a higher privilege. they’re going to destroy you unless you open your eyes.”
he stopped for a moment. i could tell he was absorbing the words, though his facial expression was defiant and hard.
i continued, “you think this is it. you think this small little world is everything. but it’s not — there’s a huge world out there, and you are insignificant. you’re not special — not to them — because you haven’t done anything. you’re just another person with a sense of entitlement, and you have to prove you deserve to be there. it’s not about what you say. it’s about what you do.”
we stared at each other for a long second.
“i get what you’re saying,” he said.
“do you? or are you just telling me what you think i want to hear? i need you to understand this — talk is cheap. it is so very, very cheap.”
“i get it.”
“i wouldn’t say this if i didn’t care,” i told him, “i have to toughen you up because i am invested in you. i cannot let you fail.”
“i get it,” he said again.
“are you going to miss us seniors?”
“yes,” i lied. well, it was a half-lie. some i would miss — those who shared their lives with me past the professional courtesies or discourtesies present in any client-employee situation. all of my students are my clients — i am here to serve them. some treat me as an adult, an authority figure, a voice to be ignored.
to others, i’m a friend, an advisor, a brick wall of truth to bounce ideas off of.
“it’s going to be weird not seeing some of you around all of the time,” i said.
“are you worried? like, worried about our futures?” another student chimed in.
“for the most part no. but i want you all to succeed. i don’t want to hear that bad things have happened to you, or that you’ve failed out of school.”
“we’ll be fine,” the first student said, “we’ll try not to get into too much trouble.”
“can you sign my yearbook?”
it was the student whose mother was terminal.
“uh, yeah, sure,” i stuttered. “how’s your mother now?” i had heard she was quickly fading. the counselors dropped him from my class, and not a single day went by that i didn’t reconsider my decision to not raise his grade.
“she’s,” he paused, searching for the words before his lips turned into a smile, “well, she’s, she’s doing much better now.”
“that’s good,” i replied, “i’m glad to hear that.”
he gave me his yearbook, and i picked up a pen from my desk. “thanks,” he said, “thanks for signing my yearbook.”
i opened to a page partly filled, and my eyes caught part of an entry that said, “you are such a cool guy!”
as my eyes turned to a blank section, those words filled the space between my ears. i knew very little of this student outside of the past month. he was a hard worker when he put in effort, and he always said very little to me or anyone else in the class. if situations were different, would i have been able to comment on something more personal? would i have known more, and would that have affected my decision?
i started to write something, but the words escaped me. i considered writing the usual yearbook message — “have a good summer. see you (not) next year!”
what could i possibly say after all that went down? the truth? if i could, i would have written an apology, something that explained my rationale. i wanted to tell him that i was sorry his mother wasn’t in better shape, and that i had to maintain the rigor, structure, and composition of the course — that i couldn’t make exceptions to the rule and pass someone if they didn’t do the work.
i wanted to tell him that life throws curveballs and sliders, and sometimes it will lob an underhanded throw that ends up being a glass ball that just shatters in your face and leaves you scarred.
i wanted to tell him that it wasn’t my fault, but all i could write was a short paragraph that told him to be positive, stay strong, and recognize his potential. it was diplomatic — something in between what i wanted to write and what i could.
when i was finished, i capped my pen, placed a small sheet over the page so the ink wouldn’t smear, and snapped the book closed.
as i handed it to him, he smiled. “thanks,” he said.
“thank you,” i said.
before he walked out the door, possibly for the last time ever, he stopped and waved. “i’m going to college and majoring in media,” he told me.
i smiled back at him. “don’t forget about us here,” i said.
he lifted his hand again and replied, “i won’t.”