A student, a high school senior re-taking a junior level class in American Literature, says to me, “Mr. Jarmer, you’re a pretty smart guy, so why don’t you help me get a new movement started. We’re starting a petition that will fix schools forever.”
“Oh, I’m intrigued,” I say. “Tell me about it!”
“Here’s the deal,” he says. “We want students, when they come in as freshmen, to say what they want to do for a living—and at that moment and from there on out, everything they do for four years in high school will be tailored to that specific career or job.”
I’m shocked and a little bit dismayed. I can tell he’s dead serious. I’m not exactly sure how to describe to him the short sightedness of a plan like that. I say something like this in response. “Do you honestly believe that all students, at 14 years old, have the experience and the intelligence and the wisdom to make a decision like this, a decision that will determine their educational path, that will close off other options, that will commit them to a particular job or educational future 4 or 5 years before it arrives? Why would you want to do that?”
And here’s the clincher, here’s the knife twisted into the heart. He says to me, “Well, because nothing, absolutely nothing I’ve done or experienced in school has been worthwhile to me. None of it has interested me. And none of it has prepared me for the job I’m going to do.” And, by the way, he knows for certain what that job is. The job is waiting for him, he says, immediately after he walks across the stage with that stupid, worthless diploma.
“What job is that?” I ask him.
“I’m going to be a logger.”
This was a pivotal moment in my classroom last week, and perhaps, although I’m loath to credit this particular student for it, a pivotal moment in my twenty-three years as a high school English teacher. This is a kid, for better or worse, mostly worse I figure, that has been in my classroom for three of his four years in high school. He doesn’t read. He hates to read and hates to write. He’s totally uninterested in the study of literature. Most often, he refuses to engage in any serious way, refuses to take any academic task seriously and dismisses outright most every aspect of the curriculum, and, on top of that, he’s distracting and rude to other students and doesn’t respect his teachers, at least not very much. Nothing I have given him over three years has meant a thing. That’s part of it. Here’s a kid with whom I have been totally unsuccessful. That’s depressing. To make myself feel a little bit better I consider the source. He has taken, throughout his high school career, such an intensely negative attitude toward everything academics has to offer, that he has essentially prohibited himself from benefiting from it. His mindset is completely antithetical to book learning. I see this as his responsibility, his fault, and then I dismiss him as a crackpot. He’s going to be a logger. I wanted to ask him how many logging towns he’s visited lately and how those prospects are looking. I wanted to give him a lecture about the power of literacy, saying that education IS power, that the mind is a terrible thing to waste, that if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it, that education is not only about the three r’s, but about learning how to be human, that even loggers need to have that, and if they don’t, they’ll be dysfunctional or depressed and drunk all the time in front of their televisions or their computers, and that literature, and learning how to express oneself in writing and speaking, not only will make you more human, but might put food on your table and a roof over your head, and, in the event that the logging thing falls through, or, in the event that, while logging, you lose a limb, these skills and experiences might open up other possibilities for your life. I didn’t say any of these things.
I think a little bit further on the conversation. Hours later it haunts me, and then I feel a surprising wave of respect and admiration for this kid I don’t like very much. I’m doubtful that he’ll pursue it, but in that moment he seemed legitimately and sincerely motivated, to want to advocate for future students who would follow after him, and in that moment, he was as articulate as I’ve ever heard him. And I’m mad at him because he helps me to understand something I already know but don’t like to admit: I realize that this boy is verbalizing something that maybe a full half of the high school boys in my charge must be experiencing and feeling. And I specify “boys,” because it’s true that most of my struggling students are boys, most of my disengaged, disinterested, disruptive students are boys. And then I realize that he’s absolutely right, not that students should carve out an inflexible path for their futures at 14, but that whatever we’re presenting to boys like this one, it’s not working, it’s not helping, it’s not what they need, and they feel, at the end of their twelve years in public education as they leave prepared for nothing in particular and barely literate, that we’ve wasted 12 years of their lives. And maybe we have.
I haven’t wrapped my head around the implications. I feel like I’m on to something here for my own classroom practice and for the school reform movement in general. It’s not new. John Dewey figured out all of this stuff in the 19th century, this importance of connecting education to experience. We weren’t listening then and only in progressive circles are we listening now, but we’ve been powerless to affect systemic and significant change. We’ve been buried in a bureaucratic and top-down emphasis on standards and standardized testing and threats to teacher unions and threats to public education itself and the idea that every kid needs the same thing at the same time in the same way and it’s just crazy. And even classroom teachers like myself who have the very best of intentions and who love their subject matter are glacially slow to realize that the stuff that they love may not be the be-all and end-all thing for every kid, or even necessary. Don’t get me wrong. I believe all that stuff above in the imaginary lecture I wanted to give to this student. But the paths to this conclusion have to be various and individually tailored. And that might be possible if teachers of public school secondary English classes did not have responsibility for two hundred-plus students, and if schools were not so heinously and inequitably segregated and tracked, and if politicians who never stepped foot in a classroom would get the hell out of the way, and if parents were perfect, or at least better, or at least engaged and involved, and if poverty didn’t exist, and alcoholism, and drug-addiction, and teen pregnancy, and attention-deficit disorder, and apathy, and anti-intellectualism, and video games, and, and, and, and. . .
My head is exploding with the things I know and the things I don’t want to admit I know or the things think I am powerless to do anything about. Down and out in A9, my classroom, in my 23rd year, hoping that by the time I retire, I figure some of this stuff out.