Saturday, May 30, 2009


Or: Tears, Part 2

Five minutes before class: A student is standing solemnly outside the staff lounge. I am heading out of the room, going up to the auditorium where this girl and two classmates will present their "Senior Symposium."

"I have a problem," she says nervously. "I'm not ready."

"Sure you are," I say as I brush past her, knowing full well that she's probably not. She's one of my weaker students, working with two other weak students. Today's the first day of the Symposium, and the three of them got the unlucky break of being selected to go first. "You go on in five minutes. I'll see you there."

Three minutes before class: I've peeked into the auditorium; everything seems to be in place. A table and three chairs, plus a podium on stage. Lights on. Students are wandering in casually, filling in random seats. Two of the presenters are at the door; unprepared girl is not. I step out, see her standing in a corner by the stairs.

"I lost most of my presentation," she says as I approach. "I can't go on. Can the two guys go on without me? I'll take a zero."

"What do you mean you lost your presentation?" I ask, pretty much knowing what she'll tell me. All year long, whenever an assignment has been due, at least one student was bound to tell me something about a computer crash or lost storage device or some sort of technical snafu.

The girl pulls out some typed-up notes and mumbles something about working all night and not saving it properly.

"Looks like you have something," I say. "Just present that. Even if it's not great, even if you get a terrible grade, it's better than nothing. Remember what I've said all year, an F is better than a zero." (It's true: an F will not drag down an overall average like a zero does.)

She doesn't look convinced, but I turn away, distracted by some silly seniors asking questions about the Symposium. It begins today, and they still don't know exactly what's expected of them. It's not that difficult. In groups of three, they've all read and analyzed independent novels, linked by author or theme. Today, groups must present that author or theme. Each group member chooses something that links the three novels and speaks about it for ten minutes. Afterwards, there's a question-and-answer session, group members defending their conclusions.

The symposium has been a tradition here for at least 15 years. It's something every twelfth grader endures in the weeks before graduation. But I guess it hasn't hit them until here and now. They are graduating in less than 20 days.

"Does everyone have to dress formally, or just today's presenters?" someone asks. As if I'd tell her to leave if she wasn't dressed properly.

One minute before class: Unprepared girl is now a total nervous wreck. Tears are streaming down her face. She's probably wondering why she's here, cornered, why she didn't run somewhere, anywhere instead of showing up. I should let her off the hook, let her take a zero, fail the fourth quarter, possibly the semester, not graduate. I should. But first I need to trick her onto the stage.

"Let me ask you something," I say. "What do you think of me as a teacher? Am I OK? Or terrible? Or somewhere in between?"

She looks up. Wipes some tears away. "You're a very good teacher," she says.

"Thanks," I say. "Now let me tell you a story. Are you listening?"

I tell her--in as few words as possible--about my time student teaching, back in the early 90s. I was having a terrible time. I got along well with the students, but I just wasn't ready to teach. I quickly realized that I had blown off my entire four years of college. I hadn't learned a thing about teaching. I didn't know how to write a lesson plan, how to teach, how to assess. I didn't even know my subject well. When the university supervisor asked me specific questions about what I was doing or why, I couldn't answer.

So I decided to quit.

There was about a month to go, and I was in pain and agony. I realized that I would never actually work as a teacher. I didn't know what I would do, but I knew I'd never teach. One evening I told my parents that I was quitting. They were upset, but for the first time ever, they didn't attack my decision. They listened. And when I was done, tears streaming, they said something like this: "Maybe you won't ever teach. But just finish this. And if you decide to teach in the future, you'll have the degree, the qualifications."

I did finish that semester of student teaching. It wasn't great. But my cooperating teacher was encouraging, and the university supervisor gave me a pass.

"My point," I tell unprepared girl, "is that I'm glad I finished what I started. If I had quit back then, I wouldn't be here right now."

She agrees to give it a try.

30 seconds before class: As nervous girl walks into the auditorium, I smile and give her a final word of advice: "I promise you, you will not die. It might not be great, but you will not die."

I turn out to be right. Her group does fine. She does fine; in fact, she's better than her more confident group members. And the audience is approving, asking loads of serious questions. It's not the greatest 40 minutes of anyone's life, but nobody dies, life goes on, and maybe someone has even learned something.

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