Schoolyear Homestretch: They Know Not of What They Speak. Or Write.

The discussion in my predominately black, tenth-grade classroom was focused on racism.

We have been working our way through the book A Lesson Before Dying, a wonderful 1994 Pulitzer nominee about a rural Louisiana black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Set in 1947, the story pre-dates the Civil Rights days of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (the only such benchmarks my students really know) by a decade, and chronicles the effort to see that the accused man dies with a sense of dignity.

Racism is a dominant theme of the story, and a concept that many of even my brightest students tend to incorrectly think is something in the past or, more sadly, not a huge part of their present.

During the discussion on where racism really ‘comes’ from, a black student stated firmly that racism is generally learned from one’s parents – ‘Even black racism.’ This idea was met with murmurs and nods of approval from those that are inclined to jump so forcefully into a discussion like that, but I wanted to point out that that might be a little over-simplified, noting that what parents think or believe doesn’t always transfer to a child and asking my students to think of things they disagree with their parents about. I told my students that I know of plenty of kids who aren’t racist even though their parents seem to be.

This idea was greeted with a few moments of silent indifference until one of the few white kids in the class chimed in proudly with an affirmation of my concept. “I’ve got proof of that, Mr. Lucker!” the kid said earnestly. “I’m supposed to be a fifth-generation KKK Klansman…

….but I’m NOT!”

“That’s…..good, Darren. Thank you for, umm…sharing that.”

The class stared at me, a few with quizzical looks that I can only assume were a reaction to whatever facial expression I had as I stared at Darren* for a moment. Aside from a few nods of agreement, nobody had a thing to say in response, and at first I was more surprised by the lack of reaction than I was the initial comment.

But I’m not. Just another day in the front of my classroom.

My students have a propensity for being obstinate – like most teenagers – but they will dig in their heels ferociously and adamantly defend their version when their take on a turn of phrase is challenged. Two examples from this year stand out.

The first was a sophomore who wrote about an essay commenting on her sister’s positive attitude, and the inspiration the sister provides her younger siblings, including Brenda, my student. She lauded, in worthy prose, her sister’s ‘self of steam.’

Even with provided context, I still had to read it a few times to understand what ‘self of steam’ meant for Brenda.

Discussing her paper with her, I was met with a puzzled look as I tried to explain that what she meant was her sister had a lot of ‘self-esteem’ – even going so far as to having her look up ‘esteem’ in the dictionary. Still, she contemplated, paused, looked at her paper and the dictionary, then looked up at me standing over her and said, distinctly, and with a definite correcting me tone of voice: ”Yeah, it’s her SELF. OF. STEAM, Mr. Lucker…how good she feels about herself.”

And the young woman’s ‘self of steam’ stayed that way in the final draft.

Maybe that’s what my students mean when they say, “Mr. Lucker…you’re blowin’ me!”

But I’m not.

The other top curious turn of phrase also came from a sophomore girl, who noted that when talking about literary point-of-view, it is not third-person-limited and third-person omniscient you need to understand, but rather ‘third- person limited and third person ammunition’ point-of-view.

She too, was left unswayed by logic, or the class handout on her desk we had been reviewing and discussing, or the textbook on her desk, all focusing on ‘third-person-omniscient’ narration.

Carlene was steadfast in explaining ‘third-person-ammunition’ point-of-view – which she actually did quite well.  If you overlook the fact that ‘omniscient’ and ‘ammunition’ are not synonymous. If you do that.

Even in New Orleans, I’m not sure ‘third-person-ammunition’ is a viable legal defense.

And finally…

I had a good chuckle to wrap up the last full week of the year with Ms. W, our school’s lead librarian. (The librarians love me because I bring all my classes there at the start of the semester to teach them about the library; apparently I’m the only English teacher who does that. Plus, I actually assign book reports – hence the initial library-orientation visit. They then know where to go to find the books for their book reports.)

Seems a student came into the library on Friday to return a book that he had checked out in October and found only now while cleaning out his locker. Aside from any pangs of guilt over depriving some other poor student of a book, the return of said tome also probably removed a financial hold from the kid’s record. Fortunately, the fines cease when the fine amount reaches the cost of the book; $16 in this case.

As Ms.W clicked away on the computer showing the book as returned and getting the kid’s holds removed, she said the running dialogue continued as follows:

“Well, at least I hope you enjoyed the book.”

“Eh. It was o.k. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

“But you liked it.”

“It was alright. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

All she could do relating the story to me was laugh about the kid’s ongoing ‘Mr. Lucker made us read a book.’ I shook my head and said ‘So, I suppose I should wear that as a badge of honor?

She continued laughing as she headed for the door, “Why not, Mr. Lucker? Why not?”

All this time I thought I was teaching English, not eastern philosophy. But I guess if the mantra “Mr. Lucker made us read a book” is the primary result of the year, maybe that will enhance someone’s self-of…Eh. You know what I mean.

Eh. You know what I mean.

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My diagnosis? ‘George Washington Syndrome.’ (Or: Cherry tree? Whats a cherry tree?)

“What this night really needs is a couple of good lies to be told.”
– Me, speaking to two teaching colleagues, 7:00 P.M. 03/26/12

We had parent-teacher conferences at school last Monday night, and six of mine showed up out of roughly 75 students. Not a great ratio, but better than many of my colleagues. Of the six, they all had legitimate concerns and none was disputing my interpretations of what was ailing their kids in my class. Only one of the six protested that her kid was doing ‘okay’ in her other classes, but also acknowledged that her daughter doesn’t like to do a lot of writing, so English is always a struggle.

I wasn’t getting ‘beat up’ by parents as can frequently happen in such situations. My guests were all rational and seemed to want to work together.

My only issue with my well-meaning parental visitors was that almost all of them shared personal information about their kids and/or family situations that, while helpful in explaining some things, also went wayyyyy over the line into TMI mode. As is frequently the case here in New Orleans, some folks have boundary issues. (This is not confined to parent teacher night: in making phone calls home just this week, I have learned way more than I ever should have about three family situations – information that had I ever ventured to ask about would probably get me fired.)

As usual, the biggest head scratchers came from the students themselves. Two of the parents who showed up in my class had their respective child in tow…both of whom surprised me with their lack of guile.

To wit:

Student #1:
Male. 11th grader.
Bright kid, a year from graduation. Spends most of English class joking with his girlfriend. When he writes, he writes well. Periodically participates in class discussions, knows the material yet usually bombs any quizzes. usually not a huge discipline issue for me.

Explained situation to mom (left out the girlfriend part, opting for the more generic and also true, ‘talks and messes around’ a lot). Mom looks at kid, asks, “Is that true?”

“Well, yeah.” Mom sits dumbfounded, looking at kid. I am watching from across the table. Mom says, “So, what Mr. Lucker is telling me is true. And you admit it.”

“Well, yeah.” kid says with a shrug

“May I ask why?” responds mom evenly.

“I don’t know.”

“You know all this stuff, right? You’ve never had problems with English before. What is the problem here?”

“I just don’t feel like doing it.” says kid, with a matter of fact shrug.

“You don’t feel like it? We all have things we ‘don’t feel like doing’ sometimes. You think your dad and me don’t feel that about our jobs ? But we do it because we have to. Your job is to be a student, even when you don’t feel like it.”

“This stuff doesn’t interest me.”

“But you need this to get through to your senior year. You know that.”

“Yeah, but it aint interesting. Nothing here is interesting.”

Mom proceeds to read kid the riot act on why he is in school, what he should be doing, why it escapes her how he can be doing the wrong thing and admits it, what privileges he is about to lose, etc. She then looks at me and shakes her head. “Mr. Lucker. I don’t know what to tell you outside of he will be doing better and if he doesn’t, you call me. “

“Yes, ma’am.” We say our goodbyes, she looks at her kid incredulously as they walk off down the hallway.

Along with that kid, and the parents who apparently confuse me with Dr. Phil, the pièce de résistance of the night was this kid:

Male. 10th grader.
Bright kid, has a history of good test scores. Spends most of English class talking or just staring into space. When he writes, he writes well. Rarely writes, and when he does, he frequently stops in mid-sentence, leaving thoughts unfinished. Embellishes every handout or paper that comes his way with names of his favorite basketball teams and drawings of their logos.

First part of our discussion concerned his behaviors as noted above. Kid did not disagree with my assessment, agreed that it was fairly accurate. Also shrugged when asked ‘why’ by mom. Mom was perplexed; kid is very bright, mom is a degreed professional, very involved, truly seems to ‘get it.’ Then came this exchange.

“Mr. Lucker, how did Oscar* do on his tests?”

“Poorly. Another big thing that cost him, grade wise, was not getting in his second book report. It was worth two test grades.” Which prompted her to turn and look at her son.

“You love to read. Why didn’t you turn in your book report?”

“Because I didn’t finish the book from the first book report.” I had forgotten that fact.

“True. He didn’t get that one turned in, either.” I remembered.

“Why didn’t you get that one turned in?”

“Mom, the book is 516 pages long. I couldn’t finish it.”

“Why” I asked, unable to hold back my curiosity, having required a simple, 200 page novel for said book report, “did you pick a 516 page book for your book report?”

“It was the only book in the library that looked interesting.”

“The only one in our school library that looked interesting?”

“Yes sir.”

“Was it a Harry Potter book?” I asked, puzzled, never having seen the kid with such a huge tome in his possession, and having not seen that many books of that size in our library – except for HP.

“No. It’s called ‘Caged’.”

“Wait a minute;  that the book that’s been sitting on your dresser for a month?” asked mom.

“It hasn’t been there a month.”

“Well, it was a two-week project, due two weeks ago…so a month sounds about right.” I interjected, in reference to book report two – book report one was a month before that.

“No, I got it for the first book report. And it’s overdue at the library. I owe money on that one, so I couldn’t get a second book.”

Mom looks on, dumbfounded, as I remind Oscar and explained to mom that anyone who didn’t have library privileges for whatever reason could always get a book from my classroom library, pointing to my large, very visible, lime-green bookshelf. Mom’s eyes narrowed.

“Why in heaven’s name would you pick a book that big and then miss two book reports?” She asked. Quite logically, I thought.

“I couldn’t finish it, mom. It’s 516 pages long!”

Mom looks at me, mouth agape.

“I don’t know what I can tell you, ma’am. Like I said, he could’ve gotten a book from me at any time…”

“But I already had a book, Mr. Lucker.”

“But you didn’t read it!” reminded his mother firmly, through clenched teeth.

Because it was 516 pages long – I keep telling you that!” said Oscar, plaintively.

After a few seconds of strange silence, mom wraps up our session with a handshake. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Lucker. I don’t know what to tell you.” With that, mother and son walk out the door and down the hallway – silently.

Life proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction, as I wrapped up for the night I couldn’t help but wonder: as a writer and a teacher, do I in good conscience need to spend more time with my students focusing on the art of creative story telling?

Oh yeah – that whole truth-is-stranger thing.