The Real Cost of Teaching

These are all real kids I’ve taught.  They’re not the majority, of course.  The vast majority of students come, do OK in school, and graduate.  No, these are the ones who stick out in my memory.

James was a freshman who didn’t think there was any point to school.  He wouldn’t do his homework no matter how many times his teachers called home, gave him detention, or offered to help.  He wouldn’t do his classwork unless the teacher stood over him the entire time.  And sometimes, he liked to scream “Fuck you!” at the teacher so he could get sent out of class.  James’ parents did nothing to help him, and were barely ever home, often leaving on trips to Las Vegas or Reno, leaving him to himself.

Alyssa was a bright girl, and tried her best–but once she got home, she was expected to take care of three elementary-aged children while her mother went to work.  She hadn’t seen her father in fifteen years.  Her friends said that if she did too well in school, she was “acting White.” They mocked her constantly.  She tried anyway, determined to get out of poverty.  But her homework was less than stellar, because she was too tired when she finally got around to it at 10 or 11pm that she couldn’t do her best work.  Against all odds, she graduated high school. College, however, has eluded her.

Elliot was a bright kid who got As in every class. But he knew that the California State Tests cannot, by state law, affect his grades, so he didn’t even try to do his best work on the test.  He answered the obvious questions, and randomly bubbled in answers on any question he didn’t know the answer to before he looked at the choices.

Roman was from Ukraine.  He barely spoke English, and couldn’t read it well enough to do well in any class.

Rose was from Armenia. Not only was her English sub-standard, but she was borderline mentally handicapped, and she’d never been in school until she came to America at age 14. She simply couldn’t earn above a D in any class in high school,  but her parents didn’t want her in classes where she could have gotten extra help.   They’re afraid the stigma of special education would mean she couldn’t find a husband in their closed-off immigrant community.

Clint dealt drugs, from pot to meth.  He thought that was the way he was going to become rich, and he didn’t care that he was destroying lives, including his own.  He got kicked out of school at 14 because he was caught selling on school property.  His parents tried to fight the expulsion on the grounds that he was just “trying to support his family.”

Veronica’s first words to me, on the first day of school, were “Fuck you.”  She was in 6 fights in three months of high school, resulting in five 5-day suspensions and, at the last, expulsion.  The last one was so bad, three police units responded to the call, and the kid whose head she kicked repeatedly ended up in the hospital for more than a week with head trauma.  Her father watched the video of her kicking the kid in the head and tried to defend her on the grounds that a) the other kid deserved it, and b) we couldn’t really see his daughter’s face on the video, so how did we know it was really her?  Why did the fight start?  Because the other kid was wearing blue.

Brenda hadn’t seen her father since she was six years old, when her brother killed him in self defense right in front of her. She was a sweet young lady, but prone to anger and full of pain.  She did what she could, but her grades were always middle of the road.  When I last heard from her, she’d given up on college.

This is the real cost of teaching. We want to help them, but the reality is that there is only so much we can do, and for some, it simply isn’t enough.  No matter how we try, we cannot make up for all the crap they have to deal with.

So you do what you can.  You take what minor victories you can.  And you try not to let it destroy you.  Some days are awful.  Some are OK.  A very, very few are good.

But at the end of the day, I’m not sure I want to do this anymore.

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a third grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-three years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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