After school, I noticed one of my students at her locker outside my classroom. "Hey," I called over, "how's it going?" She didn't respond; just kept staring into her locker. I asked, "Something the matter?" She shook her head, not looking over, hair obscuring her face. She's usually one of my all-time bubbliest students. "You wanna talk about it?" I walked over. She shook her head again, but I noticed from the telltale shoulder shakes that she was crying. "Tell you what," I said, retreating, "I need to talk to you anyway, so stop by my room when you get your stuff."
Walking back, I wondered what I was getting myself into. Problems at home. With a boyfriend. Fight with a friend or teacher. Pregnancy. These were all possibilities. My students often face problems I couldn't even imagine. Last week, a similar situation with a similarly usually-cheerful girl revealed this: She was upset because her American-born, three-year-old niece had been sent to Mexico while the family tries to sort out the little girl's father's immigration status. "They might not come back to the U.S. for years," she told me, crying.
But I can't help it. If I see a student upset, I have to ask what's going on. Today's student walked in, sat down in her assigned desk. (It's funny: In my class, I assign seats, something high schoolers hate, but when they come in after school, they usually gravitate to that desk anyway.) Tears were streaming down her face.
"Does it have to do with school?" I asked.
"Oh, thank God!" I said. "I was afraid it was something important."
She cracked a little smile. I walked over to my desk, came back with tissue and some Halloween candy. Then spent 45 minutes talking about her classes, her unfair teachers, her job (forced to work last night until 1 a.m.), her family--mom can't provide, dad's going to jail for some DUI-related conviction. I don't know if I actually helped her with any of her problems, but I said I'd talk to the other teachers. I insisted that she needs to concentrate on her classes, that she has the potential to get lots of scholarships.
Then an amazing thing happened. One of my students from last year, who is a senior this year, walked in to tell me about getting accepted to six universities so far, even though she's still waiting to hear back from her top choices. One has offered her $64,000 in scholarships, two others have offered $50,000 each. I looked over at my crying student. "See what I mean?"
"Oh wow," she said.
I had this bright idea, and asked the senior to stop in at the start of first period tomorrow. I want to talk about opportunity cost with the juniors. Here's my planned talk: Let's say a kid has a job making $6 an hour, averages 20 hours a week. She'll make $120 a week (minus taxes), equaling about $6,000 a year. That money seems good to her now, but if she quit her job and concentrated on her studies, she could earn a $50,000 scholarship. By working her current part-time job, however, her grades suffer, she might fail some classes, and get no scholarships. That means, by working, instead of earning $6,000, she's actually losing $44,000. Does that make sense? (And if it does, who says an English teacher can't do math?)
Anyway, as she was getting ready to leave, I said, "Do me a favor. Here's a copy of tomorrow's test. Can you read it over and tell me if there are any problems with it?" She looked at me weird. I said, "Just read it. See if it there are any spelling errors, if it makes sense." She started reading it. I asked, "Can you answer all of the questions?"
"Well, I don't know the answers to part one," she said.
"So you know what you have to study tonight, right?"
She looked at me. "Can I write something down?"
I said, "Well, you cannot take the test out of this room."
"So," she said, "can I write down the questions?"
I looked at her. "I already told you what you can't do."
"But isn't that cheating?"
My heart almost broke with the innocence and sweetness of that question. I thought about her grade in my class. Borderline D/F. If she fails the test tomorrow, she fails the first quarter. I really, really want her to pass. "Who showed you the test?" I asked. "Then how can it be cheating?"
She smiled. "Thank you!" she said.
"Just please don't share this with any of your friends," I said, almost secretly hoping she would. "Because ... that would be cheating!"